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National may run behind closed doors



Martin Cruddace

Martin Cruddace

Martin Cruddace

The Aintree Grand National, sponsored by Crumlin-based company Randox Health, is the latest sporting event to come under threat from the coronavirus pandemic.

Last week's Cheltenham Festival got by the post, albeit with slightly reduced attendance figures, however the Government announcement regarding mass gatherings, expected this week, raises the possibility of the historic race being run behind closed doors, devoid of public attendances.

The National is scheduled for Saturday, April 4.

Irish racing is already being run behind closed doors with fixtures affected including tomorrow's St Patrick's Day meeting at Down Royal and the scheduled highlight of the year at Downpatrick, the Ulster Grand National, on Sunday.

Strict conditions apply at meetings with the trainer, one owner, groom and jockey limited per horse while connections and horses must leave venues as quickly as possible after racing.

Scotland is due to limit mass gathering to 500 and today's Kelso fixture is behind closed doors, while the British Horse Racing Authority is presently following Government guidelines.

However, Martin Cruddace, chief executive of Arena Racing which owns numerous tracks, said yesterday he envisaged racing throughout Britain could be completely devoid of racegoers within the next two days.

Cruddace said: “Where we are right now is we’re following the current government advice, but I think it’s safe to say that’s very likely to change imminently. 

“My own personal view is that could be within the next 48 hours. We’re planning, worst-case scenario, end of June. It is absolutely possible we won’t race again in front of a crowd until the end of June.”

The sporting programme was once again decimated yesterday, although among the events going ahead were the Super League rugby union match between Castleford and St Helens, the Olympic boxing qualifiers in London, and snooker’s Gibraltar Open, which is continuing behind closed doors.

The coronavirus outbreak continues to affect the Formula One calendar, with the Dutch Grand Prix, scheduled for May, due to be the next one to be postponed.

In addition, Ferrari announced a cessation of production at their Maranello and Modena factories until at least March 27.

Leeds Rhinos said they would conduct all media previews ahead of Friday’s scheduled Super League match against St Helens by telephone. The Rhinos postponed their trip to Catalans Dragons this weekend after one of their players showed symptoms of the virus. The player later tested negative but the RFL governing body have threatened Leeds with sanctions.

Rugby union’s Gallagher Premiership is set to be suspended as a result of the crisis.

Officials are meeting today to discuss the immediate future of the competition, where they are expected to pre-empt government advice and cancel the season until further notice.

A Premiership Rugby spokesperson said: “The welfare of fans, players and staff is our first concern and it’s crucial to get these important decisions right.

“We are working closely with our own medical experts, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and Public Health England and our clubs. That advice will allow us and our clubs to make a well-informed decision in the coming days.”

However despite the chaos being caused to the global sporting schedules, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed his intention that this summer’s Tokyo Games will continue “without a hitch”.

Abe said: “We hope to overcome the spread of infections first and foremost and hold the Olympics as planned without a hitch.”

Belfast Telegraph