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Major boost for Irish courses as attendance limits set to be lifted from Friday

Attendance limits at Irish racecourses look set to be scrapped from Friday after a relaxation of nationwide Covid-19 restrictions was announced by Taoiseach Micheal Martin on Tuesday.

It is understood that Horse Racing Ireland is awaiting clarity from the Department of Agriculture on the exact implications of Tuesday's development. Racecourses' ability to welcome unrestricted crowds is expected to be determined by each track individually.

Current restrictions around outdoor events allow 50 per cent of venue capacity where patrons have mixed Covid-19 immunity status, but from Friday it is expected those with proof of vaccination status will be allowed to use indoor facilities at tracks.

Non-vaccinated racegoers may access only outdoor amenities, with Martin suggesting existing legislation around the use of vaccine passes will be extended until February.

The announcement has come too soon for most courses hosting meetings this weekend to implement changes, but Wexford manager Eddie Scally believes the track's fixtures on Sunday and Monday could be close to normal if jockeys are allowed to return to the weighing room, freeing up indoor dining spaces for the public.

Scally said: "Our plan is to reopen our main restaurant and we're hoping to get back to very close to normal for the weekend. What might be the Achilles heel for racecourses at the moment is jockeys returning to the weighing room. If I can get them back there, everything is back to normal and I can reopen the main restaurant."

He added: "We plan that once you come in a marquee at the main entrance, if you show a Covid [immunity] cert we give you a coloured wristband that means you can go inside. If you don't have that wristband, you can't come indoors and have to eat outside and so on.

"Our interpretation is that attendances will be back to full capacity, but for dining or drinking indoors – just like a bar or restaurant – you have to have your Covid cert."

Sligo will be the first course to host a meeting where an unrestricted crowd is possible this Friday but only members – who can bring a guest – and owners will be in attendance.

Manager Kathryn Foley said: "We didn't really know until Tuesday what would be happening on Friday so we're going to proceed as we have done for the past three or four meetings.

"It's our last meeting until May 1 and we could possibly have over 1,000 here on the day. We can't wait to get back to normal in 2022 after two strange years."

Jim Martin, chief executive at Dundalk, where racing will also take place on Friday, said: "We have yet to receive guidelines from HRI or the department and it's only when we get those that we can assess the situation."

Galway hosts its concluding three-day meeting of the year from Saturday to Monday, with the fixtures sold as outdoor events with some additional hospitality.

"It won't have a huge impact on us this weekend but what appears to be an increase in table sizes for indoor dining from six to ten is positive," said manager Michael Moloney.

"Usually we'd have a student raceday on the Monday but decided against that, not wanting to have an impact on college life in Galway for the sake of one year.

"We're back allowing cash admissions at the turnstiles, which proved popular at our last meeting."

Tim Husbands, chief executive at Leopardstown where racing takes place on Saturday, added: "I think this is an optimistic day for Ireland and horseracing, we just have to work out what the practical implications are. This has come too soon to have an impact on our Saturday plans."

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