In 2019, nobody had heard of the coronavirus, but now the media have several COVID-19 updates each day. Throughout Australia and the world, restrictions were placed on people gathering, borders were closed and non-essential travel was barred. Sports everywhere were shut down, from school carnivals to elite top grade national and international events. In Australia, NFL, A-League and AFL were suspended due to coronavirus shutdowns. Horse Racing globally also ceased in many major racing jurisdictions. Internationally even the 2020 Tokyo Olympics were postponed to 2021. However, throughout this time the Australian racing industry has managed to keep going, and for sports and betting fans it has been the only game in town for the last couple of months.

Although Australian racing has continued, it has not been untouched by the pandemic. Because of biosecurity regulations to protect the health and welfare of people in the racing industry, events are run in front of empty stands as only essential participants are allowed on course. This means trainers, jockeys, stewards, vets, farriers and any other essentially staff required to be on-course. Horse owners are not considered essential and aren’t allowed to be at the track to watch their horse go around, and there are no presentations held after the race.

Prizemoney has been reduced significantly for many races. For instance the prizemoney for the Queen Elizabeth Stakes was $4 million in 2019 but reduced to $2 million in 2020. This is because race clubs aren’t getting any money from attendance at tracks, and returns to racing from the TAB have plummeted as pubs, clubs and TAB agencies have closed due to COVID-19. Many races have been cancelled for the year, and the Brisbane Carnival has been hard hit with several Group 1 races cancelled for 2020, including the Doomben 10,000, Queensland Derby and Queensland Oaks. Also race clubs can’t rent their premises out for other events on non-race days.

Other changes have been enforced to protect the industry and its participants. Horses arriving at metropolitan tracks only need to be there one hour before racing instead of two hours so that participants are on track for a shorter time. Jumps jockeys are segregated from flat racing riders by changing the programming of meetings so that they run all the jumps races consecutively, and consideration has been given to a temporary increase in the weight scales as gyms are closed and so are on-course spas and saunas.

Other sports have questioned why racing has been able to continue when nothing else has. The answer is a mix of the economic importance of the industry, and the welfare of the animals who are the key components. We also have some very persuasive negotiators in the racing corner. Racing Australia have reported to the National Cabinet that racing contributes $9.5 billion annually, with around half of that in regional areas. However, economics alone would not get it over the line as the travel, café, restaurant and entertainment industries also all generate a lot of money and employment.

The animals involved in racing need to be fed and cared for every day for 365 days of the year. They need to be exercised and their welfare is paramount. Although they are normally all spelled at various times, if racing was stopped it would take 6 months before it could restart, as horses would have to be brought back in to get fit again (and quite possibly jockeys would have a similar problem).

The breeding industry is also affected and our industry has adapted quickly by holding online sales which appear to work well. The television stations have been covering racing well, which may or may not be due to the lack of other sports right now, and I personally have enjoyed the TV coverage so much more when it is all about the horses and there are no chats with celebrities in the crowd or asking people who designed their fascinator!

My only pangs of sorrow are for the bill-paying owners who can’t be there in the mounting yard when their horse comes back to the winner’s stall, don’t get presented with a trophy in front of their mates and don’t have a photo on the wall that includes them on track with their horse. But the situation is certainly much better than if there was no racing at all!

The Australian racing industry is the envy of the world right now, as very few other countries have kept their racing going. We even got a virtual pat on the back from the Queen as PM Scott Morrison announced in early May that Her Majesty was pleased to hear our horse races were still running in Australia.

Thankfully it is not just our thoroughbred horse racing, but our trotting and greyhound racing are also still going strong. Since Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison made his announcement, the Australian Turf Club has had requests from around the world asking advice on how to keep racing going during the COVID-19 lockdown.

Long live Australian racing!