Racing attendance raised in parliament as industry calls for greater reopening

The issue of spectator attendance at British racetracks has been raised in parliament, as calls for an increase in venue capacity from leading industry figures and organisations continue to mount.

Raised during a debate regarding the Events Research Programme, MPs discussed the success of pilot events in helping inform decisions about the safe relaxation of social distancing measures.

Questioning sports minister Nigel Huddleston, Lawrence Robertson MP, the Conservative Party representative for Tewksbury, asked whether crowd capacities would be equalised if pilot events demonstrated no differentiation between racetracks and stadiums, the latter of which are currently allowed to operate at a capacity of up to 10,000 spectators.

The MP further noted that the horse racing industry had been lobbying extensively in order to see its own capacity raised from the current attendance limit of 4,000 to the 10,000 threshold enjoyed by sports such as football. For the semi-finals of the UEFA 2020 European Championship, capacity of 45,000 has been permitted at Wembley Stadium, whilst 60,000 will be able to attend the final.

In his response, Huddleson stated that the government ‘have been unable to allow further opening at this moment in time’ due to public health advice as well as concerns about certain events ‘potential for mingling’ is greater.

He added: “I’m aware of the impact that has had on certain sectors, in particular racing, and that is exactly why we want to get the Events Research Programme moving and all these sectors open as soon as possible.”

As reported by the Racing Post, Chief Executive of the Racecourse Association (RCA), David Armstrong, has continued to express frustration at the limited capacity imposed on racecourses, and has confirmed that he will be taking the matter to the DCMS.

“Where we have challenged government as well is to demonstrate the scientific thinking behind not opening up for what they call standing events and events where people mingle, which obviously would include horseracing,” he remarked.

“Although that is put forward as a potentially higher-risk environment, we’ve not actually been shown any scientific evidence to demonstrate that.”

Horse racing leaders had previously expressed disappointment at the government’s decision to push back ‘Freedom Day’ – the initial date for further relaxation of lockdown rules – from 21 June to 19 July, although both Armstrong and Julie Harrington, Chief Executive of the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) noted that ‘public health must come first’.

However, after entering into talks with the government, the industry was able to secure permission for up to 12,000 racing enthusiasts to attend each day of the Royal Ascot festival as a trail event.

Armstrong added: “Obviously the most important test event for us was Royal Ascot. It will take a little while to gather the results from Ascot and if that were to come back with very positive results we would continue to press even harder because that would be the first comparable event with real evidence.”

Meanwhile, the prospect of vaccine passports as a means for spectators to attend sports events is still under discussion. The notion had previously been touted by the government and has been acknowledged by a number of sporting bodies – including the Football Association (FA), Rugby Football Union (RFU) and England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) – as a potential solution to the attendance issue.

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