A little bit later than planned, but welcome to the fourth and final part of my Coronavirus series. Let’s just jump straight into it!
I spoke with Paddy Aspell who filled me in on how he stayed busy during lockdown.
“Well I think it’s fair to say 2020 has been a real rollercoaster for the world collectively, the racing world included. We find ourselves already in July but the racing season is now being quite compacted to try and make some late gains. I personally have managed to keep pretty busy, riding out every day at Mark Johnston’s in Middleham and general fitness to try and make a return from injury if at all possible.”
Paddy went on to tell me how he feels about the resumption of racing with the new rules in place.
“Since the resumption of racing behind closed doors, I think the BHA, racecourses, trainers, staff and more have done an incredible job to overcome the logistical issues they’ve faced to keep the industry going. It appears to me that the riders have adjusted to things like face masks and social distancing in weighing rooms extremely well. It certainly can’t be straightforward.”
He concluded with moving forward within the sport.
“We are living in strange times – for now, something referred to as ‘the new normal’ so we basically have to take every day as it comes, make the best of every situation and hope that going forward racing can, one day, get back to something like we remember our great sport. Fingers crossed for the future.”
Paddy has always been very supportive of my work and always helped me where he can, which I am very grateful for. Hopefully we do get to see Paddy back out on the course after his injury.
I also spoke with William Kedjanyi who works for Star Sports. He filled me in on how the pandemic has affected his work.
“It’s impacted everyone hugely, but I’ve been luckier than most. My parents are key workers and I’ve always felt I had an understanding for the effort NHS staff put in, but that’s increased tenfold – I’ve been lucky that I can work from home.
It’s been a real blow on lots of fronts, but the cancellation of racing (when it was absent) was personally incredibly difficult as an integral part of my daily routine was gone (with nothing else to fill it). I was thankful for the US tracks still going (and I’ve used my time to sharpen up in that area) but low grade racing from there wasn’t the same, although to be fair, my mind may have been on other matters.
My title is political – and it’s a huge part of what I do – but I love racing and am writing previews for every big weekend (and have been for most of my time with Star) whilst I’ve attended lots of the big meetings with them and the pitch over the past 18 months.
You miss the people you work with a huge amount too. Thankfully there are more ways than ever to keep in touch, but not rushing around the course and bolting from pitch to pitch – usually to see Martin ‘Lofty’ Chapman and Shelb, or Flynn (our head of on course) – and also the routines of raceday as well. The excitement of the train, meeting people in the nearest town/city beforehand, and the excitement of getting together with friends to watch too and discuss what’s happened.
In terms of a specific event, we missed Aintree incredibly badly (every bookmaker does) not only for the online business but especially on course, but as a whole the earliest weeks of lockdown – an unprecedented situation where we had all of our most popular sport cancelled for weeks on end – were very hard on everyone. The team at work (Star Sports) have been wonderful with great support and my editor (David Stewart) has worked around the clock to make sure things keep going, but lockdown put us in a very rough spot – we had a 60% drop in bets from out pre-Cheltenham 2020 average.
Thankfully France Galop – and a huge hand has to go to Olivier Delloye who’s fought brilliantly for racing there – managed to get back by mid-May with quality racing, which turned the corner – we saw a 26% increase in bets taken overall and it proved to be an excellent springboard.
That was surpassed by the return of British racing, which came not one moment too soon and got an incredible reception: we took 350% more bets compared with May, and it appears that plenty of people had been waiting too, as we’ve eventually had more than double the bets we would during a normal month. We took plenty of action from Ireland too which has meant things are really positive actually – we’ve got more people betting with us than this time last year.”
Will went on to tell me how he occupied his time whilst the racing was cancelled.
“I’ve spent much more time with my family, which has been lovely, and we’ve all gotten along, touch wood. Work on political and media stuff for Star, we’ve got a great inventive team, also we’ve managed to really improve output, firstly focusing on the Labour Leadership content (and Deputy), the next Shadow Chancellor, and BBC DG were all markets we got up before focusing on America. Thinking outside of the box has allowed us to broaden our offering now and things can only get better – Tony Blair voice – in the months ahead on that score.
But I did manage to find plenty of time to fill the absence of racing, starting with doing something I should’ve been doing lots more of – Read! I’d been so busy with all the sport and politics that I hadn’t really been able to make time for good books and I’ve loved catching up. My favourite read was Not Buying It by Charlotte Hawkins but I also finally had the chance to read across multiple subjects – I finished ‘Equal’ by Carrie Gracie.
It’s given me a chance to get into my history again too, and I’ve loved ‘The Betrayal of Mary, Queen of Scots’ by Kate Williams. This is a marvellous journey into one of the ugliest feuds in British history and worth every second you’ll spend on it if you want some escapism (and who doesn’t these days?)
I also got the chance to get some proper TV binging in, and one of the big benefits of this whole thing has been the chance to watch The Sopranos for the first time. One of the best TV shows ever made.
I’ve also enjoyed re-watching 30 Rock – the best comedy NBC’s made, yes I said it – Gangs of London and Money Heist – and in movie terms, I’ve been binging on the thrillers. I was particularly gutted that Daniel Craig’s last Bond film was pushed back so I’ve enjoyed his four movies, along with plenty of Jason Bourne too.”
So how does Will think the new rules being implemented will or has affected racing thus far?
“There’s obviously a significant financial hit to racing, namely in the shape of lost gate revenue. The biggest courses will suffer most but they’ll also be in the best shape – smaller tracks who are paying £50,000 to set up a safe meeting at a time when many courses are already feeling the heat. A bigger worry would be racing inside local lockdowns – we’ve had clearance for two meetings at Leicester but the optics of racing inside an area where the infection rate is soaring is something we must consider strongly.
However, one of the benefits of racing’s nature is that it can take place with social distancing, and we should be thankful that the sport takes place in such suitable grounds. The infection protocols at the courses are the most stringent I can think of outside of hospitals.
72 hour declarations have been a huge help for most, if the weather’s played ball.”
Will then concluded our discussion with how racing behind closed doors has affected the sport as well as how helpful the furlough scheme turned out to be for the sport.
“It’s been a body blow for the vast majority involved, there’s no way around it. The furlough scheme has been vital – I can’t bear to think of how many jobs would have gone in the industry without it – and thankfully things have came back in the nick of time for most. My worry in the coming months would be for lower level trainers, many of whom were on the breadline beforehand, and courses without big financial backings. Things still feel a long way away from returning fans to the racecourse in significant numbers, so much will depend on how the reopening of closed retail spaces goes.”
Will has always supported me with my blogging and I appreciate it greatly. If you don’t already follow Will I highly suggest you do. He has tremendous knowledge of many subjects and I thoroughly enjoy reading his blog posts for Star Sports and it has been an honour having him work with me on this post and series. Will and the team at Star Sports have also very kindly donated two £25 bets for my raffle for the Stroke Association. All information will be at the end of this post with how you can enter!
I also spoke with James Watson who runs the Turf Talk Podcast. Of course running a racing podcast with no racing would be difficult. He filled me in on his time in lockdown.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, like many racing fans, I wondered how I was going to cope. Keeping myself occupied whilst this large void was missing was probably the hardest thing during lockdown. Not seeing live sport was difficult for me as I must watch 10 hours of it a day. However, my time watching racing during the day soon changed to the night or the morning. I watched a lot more international meetings such as Meydan, Breeders Cup and Melbourne Cup but an average card at Sha Tin on Sunday morning never tickled my fancy, however this began to fill the void. As well as that, I spent a lot of time reading autobiographies too. Tyson Fury’s was the most fascinating in this case, showing us throughout his life and what he has had to cope with. Mental health in individual sports is a big talking point and people need to be aware that they are not the only ones. He has been a trailblazer in promoting mental health and I fully commend him for that. I also read Patrick Veitch’s autobiography which was a rollercoaster of a tipster who’s life was turned upside down. I would strongly advise it to any racing fans as it’s a fascinating read.”
So, how did no racing affect his racing podcast?
“Being one half of Turf Talk Pod, we have struggled to come up with ideas. This has affected the listener-ship in recent weeks as well. We have decided to go more personally so our listeners could get to know us more by talking about iconic moments in our racing lives and our top 5 favourites of all time. This seems to have had a good response, however, as people normally listen to our pod when travelling to work or going to places, it probably did not do as well as we would have liked. Also in the fact that there is not a lot of pods out there. Lewis and I started in the first year of university three years ago when there was only the Final Furlong Pod. Now there is such a wide choice which is great to see but other people may want to listen to them rather than us. Our fanbase is very loyal and I’d like to thank them for all their support.”
James went on to tell me how he feels the new rules have affected racing.
“The new rules that are in place post-Coronavirus are what we need at this time I think. As a sport we did a good job of showcasing how to carry on the sport after these events. Facemasks, keeping your distance and seeing no crowds has almost become the normal in recent months. I think we need to slowly re-introduce the rules back in the coming months when it is safe to do so.”
And finally, James finished our chat with his opinions surrounding racing behind closed doors and how this has affected racing.
“Racing behind closed doors is weird for most racing fans. However, I think if anything, this period of time in lockdown has aided the sports image, having taken a knock from the Cheltenham Festival. ITV have done a tremendous job publicising the sport and this shows by the viewing figures. Having racing on national television channels is important for the sport. We saw 1.5 million people viewing the racing on a Saturday and if we can keep 10% of them then that would be great. As much as I would love to go to a racecourse in the upcoming weeks, I am happy to wait until we get the all clear before heading to one. Safety of the people is what matters here first before crowds returning to racing.”
If you wish to listen to James and Lewis’ Turf Talks Podcast you can do so right here on any of these links: https://m.soundcloud.com/user-418292204 – https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/turf-talk-pod/id1439648005#episodeGuid=tag%3Asoundcloud%2C2010%3Atracks%2F854170852 or https://open.spotify.com/show/35pjNCOGtg0Vk7R6Mm6yh4.
I want to thank Paddy, Will and James and everybody else who has took the time out to be involved in this project/mini series. I found it very interesting to actually get the opinions of different sectors within the industry and how it has affected them all so differently. This project was something totally different to how I normally present my work. Let me know via Twitter if you enjoyed it and if I should do more mini projects like this.
Sidenote: My raffle to raise money for the Stroke Association is now LIVE. So you can pop over to my Twitter and view this tweet for all information: https://twitter.com/zoelouisesmithx/status/1277629857460113410?s=20 There are some fantastic prizes and it is for a fantastic cause in honour of the 10 year anniversary of my mom’s stroke. The Stroke Association help not only those directly affected by a stroke, but also their families. They helped my mom massively and I wanted to raise money for them so they can continue to help other people in need. I hope you can all join me in raising money for this incredible cause!