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It wasn't racing as we know it, but an important first step in this new post-lockdown era



On course: Action from the Randox Health Handicap Hurdle at Downpatrick

On course: Action from the Randox Health Handicap Hurdle at Downpatrick

Jockey Noel McParlan (left) and his father Sean, trainer of Walkers Point

Jockey Noel McParlan (left) and his father Sean, trainer of Walkers Point

Richard Lyttle

Richard Lyttle

On course: Action from the Randox Health Handicap Hurdle at Downpatrick

It was just like old times at Downpatrick yesterday as horse racing finally returned to Northern Ireland post-lockdown, with top trainer Gordon Elliott recording a stunning 600/1 four-timer, three of them ridden by Davy Russell - except it wasn't like old times at all.

Elliott and Russell, men long accustomed to glory days in front of packed grandstands at the likes of Cheltenham, Aintree, Punchestown, Fairyhouse and Galway, had to make do with a smattering of eager onlookers on a day when, under 'normal' circumstances, almost 5,000 would have packed into the picturesque Co Down venue.

And on such a day, with the party atmosphere in full swing, quite a few of those may have been tempted to have a punt on local father and son duo Sean and Noel McParlan, the latter romping home on 50/1 shot Walkers Point for his trainer dad in the Randox Health Maiden Hurdle. Sponsors remained loyal with Randox backing three races, and Toals bookmakers four.

To say the atmosphere yesterday was more subdued than usual at the normally lively venue is the ultimate understatement.

It was business as usual driving through the busy streets of Downpatrick town but at the racecourse itself things were anything but business as usual.

The main entrance was chained shut with entry to the car park via a side gate.

Then stewards on duty pointed anyone wishing to enter the course towards a special screening section and, after passing through that, it was on to the racecourse.

The empty grandstand was the obvious difference but there were many more too.

To adhere to social distancing, most of the jockeys used the main function room as their changing facility.

From where a band usually play and punters raise a glass or five, now jockeys beat a path to be introduced to their mounts for the next race.

There was no food or drink for sale anywhere on the course - party central this wasn't.

The bookies' pitches stood empty, the usual noisy battle for business replaced by a mixture of tranquillity interspersed with occasional music over the tannoy followed by commentary on the day's seven races. The race card was replaced by a race sheet.

Aside from big names like Elliott and Russell, potential superstar Rachael Blackmore was in action but this wasn't to be her day, a couple of sixth places the best she had to show for her efforts.

A big Downpatrick crowd on another day would have been backing her to the hilt. No doubt Rachael will return north to ride a few winners and hopefully raise the rafters.

But, despite the differences, the beating heart of the sport remained the same.

The beauty and power of the horses, and the skill and bravery of the jockeys, were still there for all to see, although the vast majority of those eyes are now by necessity on television screens all over Ireland, Britain and beyond - a crucial revenue stream for the courses.

Downpatrick Racecourse boss Richard Lyttle was philosophical about the situation the sport - and wider society - faces.

"Ideally I'd have loved to see the place packed but that's just not realistic at the moment. It's not racing as we know it but it's still great to have it back. Things are moving quickly so hopefully it won't be too long until we have people back on the course. Times have been tough for everyone," he said.

"We raced behind closed doors on March 22 for our Ulster Grand National meeting but this is the first time post-lockdown with all the new protocols in place. It has all gone very well."

It was a good day's racing and an excellent first day back for the sport in Northern Ireland, with Down Royal set to follow on July 24 with the Ulster Derby and Ulster Oaks showpiece fixture.

Like football, racing needs the spark provided by the crowd. But even more than football, racing requires its social trappings.

These will return in time and again be embraced by a grateful racing public.

The band will strike up again, champagne corks will pop and glasses will be raised.

This was a crucial first step.

Belfast Telegraph