Racing revolt as Leicester match gets green light
Staff snub race meeting and trainers withdraw horses Premier League fixture still on despite Covid-19 spike in city
Leicester Racecourse became Britain’s first sporting venue to face a staff revolt over Covid-19 safety last night after racing proceeded despite a renewed citywide lockdown in the wake of a coronavirus spike.
The region’s football and rugby teams were given the green light to continue yesterday, with Leicester City’s Premier League match at home to Crystal Palace on Saturday allowed to go ahead and Leicester Tigers turning up for training as normal.
Racing returned just hours after the new lockdown measures were implemented, prompting angry scene as all but four handlers on the racecourse starting stalls refused to turn up. A host of trainers, including Alan King, Graeme McPherson and Mick Appleby, also withdrew their runners, amid criticism of the British Horseracing Authority for risking the reputation of the sport.
Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, had warned on Monday night “against all but essential travel to, from and within Leicester” after it emerged that the proportion of tests returning positive were as high as 10 per cent, significantly up on the two per cent UK average. Official figures show 866 positive tests in the city in the fortnight to June 23, 29 per cent of all positive tests in Leicester since the pandemic started.
“Given the Government’s advice overnight and how it was clarified this morning, I was frankly astounded that the BHA considered it appropriate to race at Leicester,” said McPherson, who was due to run Homing Star.
The BHA said later that it was following the advice of local authorities to proceed, and vehemently denied any suggestion it had defied safety advice.
David Maykels, the racecourse general manager, says he was given the green light by the local health authority to continue for the ninerace Flat card, which started at 4.40pm. With no staff on the starting stalls, racing got underway with old-fashioned flip starts, involving tape across the track and a flag.
“I heard the news last night at 9pm and was expecting calls, but none came,” Maykels said. “We got an email from Dr Jerry Hill [BHA medical chief adviser] asking about local staffing levels. But since the BHA put its stringent measures in place, we feel we’re the safest place in Leicester. We thought it was important for racing and for Leicester that we went ahead.”
The local health authority, he said, “were comfortable with the decision from the start”, but “I totally understand people not wanting to come – it’s a serious decision”.
Hancock said the seven-day infection rate in Leicester was three times higher than the next highest city. Leicester accounts for around 10 per cent of new infections in the country.
In the Premier League, Brendan Rodgers’s preparations also remained unaffected, with his squad training yesterday as normal at the club’s base, situated just over three
miles away from the city centre, ahead of the match at Everton tonight. The Premier League, Government and safety advisory group unanimously agreed Leicester’s game does not require to be played at a neutral venue on Saturday.
The club said in a statement: “All parties remain entirely satisfied that, through the continued implementation of our Covid-19 operations plan, the club can continue to safely function under existing protocols and, in doing so, there will be no greater risk posed to club personnel, visiting teams or surrounding communities. Consequently, first-team training will continue at Belvoir Drive and our forthcoming Premier League games remain unaffected.”
Leicester Tigers rugby players also attended a training session yesterday at their training centre at Oval Park in Oadby. There were more nervy scenes at the racecourse, however. By noon yesterday, the course was informed eight of the team’s 12 stall handlers were not prepared to work. Local trainer Appleby, whose trio of horses were
Key locations: The sports grounds inside Leicester’s lockdown boundary