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Racing should not be seen as crisis bad boys: O'Leary



Final furlong: the handicap hurdle at Clonmel yesterday, the last meeting on the island of Ireland until mid-April at the very earliest

Final furlong: the handicap hurdle at Clonmel yesterday, the last meeting on the island of Ireland until mid-April at the very earliest

�INPHO/Bryan Keane

Final furlong: the handicap hurdle at Clonmel yesterday, the last meeting on the island of Ireland until mid-April at the very earliest

Gigginstown House Stud racing manager Eddie O'Leary has offered a stern rebuttal to those claiming that the racing community should be treated as "the bad boys" after Irish action lost its battle with the coronavirus pandemic and was cancelled until April 19 at the earliest.

On a day when the shutters also came down on greyhound racing and club golf on the island, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar cancelled all sporting events as of midnight, which means that Irish racing will no longer take place behind closed doors, as was the case since March 13.

Two meetings took place in Northern Ireland at Down Royal last Tuesday and Downpatrick on Sunday, the showpiece Ulster National, both behind closed doors.

Racing was the only show in town as strict protocols and adherence to social distancing meant that meetings took place without spectators but that will no longer be the case as more extreme measures are put in place to limit the spread of Covid-19.

Yesterday's Clonmel card is the last fixture for the next four weeks with the Irish Grand National, set for April 13, to be lost unless it is re-fixed for a later date, while today's Dundalk card also fell by the wayside.

The racing fraternity found themselves in the line of fire after the Cheltenham Festival went ahead as normal two weeks ago while many were upset that Irish action continued behind closed doors.

O'Leary, brother of Ryanair chief Michael, has questioned that narrative, though, and feels that the racing industry has been painted in an unfair light as authorities were complying with government wishes.

"It's wrong to try and nail racing as the bad boys, it was completely with government approval that racing went ahead behind closed doors. It is an attempt to keep an awful lot of rural jobs going," O'Leary said.

"Everyone is saying that all of the Irish people that went to Cheltenham shouldn't have gone. The world was a very different place before then and everything was open. People don't seem to realise that there was a Champions League match in Liverpool that week and there were thousands of Irish people there as well."

Racing in Britain was suspended from last Wednesday, with no action anticipated before May 1 at the earliest.

Horse Racing Ireland confirmed a halt to action, with key figures set to meet today to discuss the development.

A statement read: "Horse Racing Ireland (HRI) confirm that racing will cease in Ireland as of midnight tonight as per the latest government guidelines on Covid-19.

"The Board of Horse Racing Ireland will meet tomorrow morning (Wednesday) and will issue a press release soon after."

Also among the measures announced by Mr Varadkar was the closure of all betting shops.

Meath-based Grand National-winning trainer Gordon Elliott said: "If it's three or four weeks and we get back, then it won't be too bad. Everyone has to do their job and if we get back after a month it won't be the end of the world.

"Everybody is going to have to tighten up and hopefully we'll get through it okay.

"The racecourses have been doing a very good job, but unfortunately that's just the way that things are and we have to do the best by everyone."

County Tipperary handler David Marnane said: "We're all in this together and we'll just have to do the best we can.

"It's a devastating blow to us, but it is to everybody in the country. We're not the only ones.

"We'll have to knuckle down and get through this. We will get through this and come out the other side, however long it takes.

"We won't lie down. For the greater good, I understand where we're coming from.

"All you have to do is see the pictures coming from Italy and racing is only a part of life. We just have to do the best we can and see where we are in a month.

"We have to keep going with the horses. We have to exercise them. It's not like a shop where we can just turn a key and walk away from it.

"We have to do what we can. We're in it for the long haul and we'll come out the other side."

Another trainer, Denis Hogan, said: "It's disappointing, but the government have to do what they have to do to protect the people.

"I thought it (racing behind closed doors) was going well, but once the UK stopped racing it was going to be hard for us to keep going, being such a near neighbour.

"If we could get back racing by the middle of April I think we'd all take that now, but the problem is nobody knows how long this is going to go on for. You just hope it isn't too long for the sake of the industry.

"It is what it is, we're all in the same boat and I just hope everyone stays well."

Belfast Telegraph