John Gosden, the champion trainer, is, like all his colleagues, champing at the bit for the resumption of racing a week today, not only so he can get his horses out doing what they are born to do but to see his industry start turning over again and play its part in helping fire up the nation’s economy.
“One understands this is a sinister virus which doesn’t behave in the normal fashion and which is not fully understood,” he says. “I accept all the contingencies and protocols but going into lockdown was much easier than coming out of it. My greatest concern is that if we don’t get back to work we will leave the next generation in debt for 50 years and fundamentally ruin the prospects of many.
“If you’re between 15 and 25 life’s looking pretty ruined and it is likely a lot of companies are going to realise they can manage without the people they have furloughed. Racing can go ahead. We are the world’s No 1 country for Flat racing and jump racing – there aren’t many things that the UK is No 1 at in the world. We are ready to get back. We’ve got to get back.”
Gosden, 69, can speak with some authority on economic matters, not only as the experienced boss of one of the most successful businesses in his field but, before he followed his late father into training in 1979 with three horses at Santa Anita in California, he studied economics at Cambridge.
He returned to Britain in 1989 and, having had relatively successful spells at Stanley House Stables, from where he sent out his first Derby winner, Benny The Dip, and at Manton, it has been since he bought and finally settled at Clarehaven Stables on Newmarket’s Bury Road in 2007 that the results have really started flowing.
Apart from the horses who make the short distance from Coolmore to Ballydoyle in Ireland, Clarehaven has become the go-to destination for many of the most expensive blue-blooded thoroughbreds in the northern hemisphere.
From there Gosden, who rescued Frankie Dettori’s career when taking him back as stable jockey six years ago and, perhaps more pertinently in these times once gave his local MP, Health Secretary Matt Hancock, a winning ride in a charity race, has been champion trainer four times. He is also the source of three of the past five Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe winners (Golden Horn and Enable twice).
The initial challenge for all trainers was to get through lockdown. “The one thing not everyone realises is that these are racehorses we are dealing with,” he says. “They are not any old horse which you can turn out in a field or lock up in a stable, they are highly refined athletes. They need exercise every day or they become a nervous ball of energy.
“Throughout, the lads have been very happy to come in and exercise them. But we are fortunate it is all done out in the fresh air, they are socially distanced anyway and it’s been a sunny, dry spring.
“There are 2,500 horses in Newmarket Heath, all exercising, and there’s not been a sign of this horrible illness. In most respects it’s been reasonably normal – except for no racing in the afternoon. We’ve been ready to race behind closed doors for some time.
“Initially we were training them for a May 1 resumption, then May 15 and now June 1. That’s when it becomes dangerous, physically and mentally you are building the horses up but it’s not like you can sit down a football squad and say, ‘We’re not going for another fortnight’.
“So we [the country] have huge numbers of horses ready to race and it is important for people to know that when we restart, we don’t use public transport, we go by cars and horsebox.
“Everyone [the staff] has been superb. We gave them the option not to come in but they all came in, they love being with their horses and I think they took the view what a joy to be riding out in beautiful weather, instead of being locked in the house.”
However, as Gosden points out, coming out of lockdown is proving more problematic. He fears that, like a lot of industries, racing will look very different; he expects there to be fewer owners, a lack of demand for young thoroughbreds, and that a new structure will be necessary to see it through the next 25 years.
“Sadly I do think it will contract a great deal,” he predicts. “The ownership base will be smaller, prize-money will be down and we will have to restructure the industry. It won’t be in the right shape for what is coming. Racing, racecourses and breeding are all facing a problem. But it is true of a lot of industries, it’s not just us; it’s not going to be pleasant and a lot of people are going to go out of business.
“I can see the sense of Ascot adding a race a day and there may be some demand for that to be repeated but they would have to be careful racing five days straight with seven races a day if, for example, it rained a lot.
“There might become a tendency for people to want some of the best races pushed back in the calendar [on a more permanent basis than just this year] but they are not in their current position by chance.
“In the old days when it was just domestic racing, pushing back a race by a fortnight might been possible but there was no Australia, no Breeders’ Cup, no Hong Kong. Now you have to look at the big international picture. But, after this, there will be nothing not on the table to be debated.
“This year it will hit the precocious two-year-olds and the three-year-old crop. It will make it hard to assess the Classic generation and I think they will find it hard to put on enough meetings to satisfy demand. It’s one of the many ways life is being hit hard – but if we can get started and do it properly, then it will be a help to the country.”