Paddy Dunican, Kilbeggan Races manager.

Dunican longs for end of 'dead, soulless, disheartening' behind-closed-doors racing

“It is extremely dead, it is soulless and it is disheartening,” says Paddy Dunican, now in his second year of overseeing behind-closed-doors racing at Kilbeggan racetrack.

Almost halfway through this year’s schedule of ten meetings, he says he is deeply saddened every time the track gates are opened to admit limited numbers – and no spectators.

“Having said that, we are fortunate to be able to continue working,” he adds, his comments coming as the industry prepares for the permitted attendance of owners at meetings, which Horse Racing Ireland (HRI) announced on Wednesday last.

“We’re planning, but we are not sure what is going to happen,” said Paddy.

“We are all delighted at the vaccines rollout, which is a success, and that people are now beginning to feel safe again and to move around.

“Like everything, people want to see their friends and meet people, and race meetings are great places for that.

“The numbers are restricted, but can allow owners back.”

When the announcement comes that the public is being allowed return, it won’t mean that the committee can just swing the gates open and wave the traffic in.

“At the race course at the moment, a lot of our facilities are being used for the industry, so our self-service restaurant and our two main bars are all used for jockeys and stewards, because while racing is happening behind closed doors, everybody has to be socially distanced,” says Paddy.

“We don’t know how this is going to unfold in terms of when we will be able to take large crowds back at Kilbeggan but I imagine it will be a staged process, probably in three different stages.

“The first would probably be outdoor only; and then I imagine X number of the public will be allowed outdoors and indoors and then, the third stage would be – hopefully – back to normal.

“HRI have done a huge amount of work on this and all the racecourses have undertaken a detailed survey in recent weeks on what facilities for the public are being used for the industry and what we believe our capacities will be.

“It is changing all the time; the regulations are changing and we won’t really know until that time what is happening.

“My understanding is that there is going to be a number of test meetings to see how it works, and those will happen – I believe – at the bigger courses.

“But the last thing HRI – or anyone would like – is that race meetings spread Covid or would in any way put people’s health in danger. As you know, we have been racing behind closed doors since last June under strict protocols and it has worked well. There have been over 400 race meetings in Ireland and no case of Covid attributed to a racecourse that I am aware of – which I think is great credit to everybody involved.”

Kilbeggan has been strict about adhering to the rules, Paddy reveals, keeping a firm cap on numbers: “You start first of all with the racecourse staff, who were necessary to run the meeting.

“During the total lockdown, there was just one member of our committee allowed to attend, representing the committee. As restrictions eased a bit, then five members were allowed from the committee, so the essential people are those you have working on the race track, security, people who keep the buildings continuously maintained and disinfected during racing, all the personnel who are involved in filming the racing; also the HRI officials, the trainers, the stable staff and the jockeys, and five members of the media.

“There is no tote or bookies; we do have an outdoor canteen – but when we first started back, we did not have that.”

Kilbeggan has ten meetings this year – the next is the evening fixture fixed for Monday next, June 14, with a gap of almost a month to the next after that, which takes place on Friday July 9.

Paddy is relieved the sport has managed to keep functioning and anxious to see a return to normality: “There are just so many jobs involved,” he adds.

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