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No Punchestown festival for 2020 as Horse Racing Ireland ends jumps season

The remainder of the Irish jump season, including Punchestown's showpiece festival and Fairyhouse's Irish Grand National meeting, on Wednesday joined the Wimbledon Championships as the latest casualties of the escalating coronavirus pandemic.

Horse Racing Ireland on Wednesday announced the 2019-20 jumps season had now officially ended, and revealed neither Fairyhouse’s Easter festival nor Punchestown’s five-day season finale would be rescheduled.

When racing does return in Ireland, it will be on a staggered basis, likely behind closed doors, with an exclusively Flat programme for the first four weeks.

As of Wednesday, HRI has not committed to any date for when racing will return. The government has banned all sporting events until April 19, and the likelihood is that suspension will be extended.

HRI chief executive Brian Kavanagh says the governing body is working on being on a "racing ready footing" for when the all-clear is given to resume, while there are ambitions to have an enhanced programme of jump races in the autumn between October and December.

The BoyleSports-sponsored Irish Grand National is due to be rescheduled during that period, with the possibility some of the other races lost could also be run in some guise.

With a €500,000 prize fund, the National is the most valuable race in the Irish jumps calendar, while there is a total prize fund at Punchestown in excess of €3 million.

"Like many other sectors, the racing and breeding industry in Ireland will take a seismic economic blow from the fall-out of Covid-19," said Kavanagh, who confirmed all HRI staff positions would be assured for at least the month of April.

"We will be working closely with government to limit the long-term impact of this pandemic. We know that jobs will be lost in a key rural industry and that the viability of some industry institutions will come under serious threat.

"We are working on a range of industry supports which we hope to announce in the coming weeks. Once an achievable target resumption date can be identified, a new fixture list covering the rest of the year will be quickly published based on our ongoing work, along with revised race programmes which will cater for the entire horse population."

The jump championships will be decided as of Clonmel on March 24, with Willie Mullins and Paul Townend retaining their respective trainer and jockey titles. Darragh O’Keefe finishes as leading conditional, while Patrick Mullins retains his amateur riders’ crown.

Gordon Elliott was just over €100,000 behind Mullins in his quest for a breakthrough title, but was phlegmatic about the decision to finish the season early.

"Obviously I'd love to see racing on next week but in the circumstances they have done the right thing," said Elliott, who confirmed he would rough off his winter horses and give the summer team an easy fortnight.

"For owners and trainers, the clarity is helpful. It is a worrying time for everyone.

"You've got to look at the bigger picture and there is a lot at stake here now with people's health. We all have to pull together. It's a tough time and we just want everyone to come out the other side."

Asked if he would be able to retain his staff, Elliott added: "Obviously cash flow is a worry but we will definitely keep all the full-time staff and we'll take it week by week with the part-time staff. We will try to keep them for as long as we can."

There were 563 deaths in Britain due to coronavirus recorded for the 24 hours up to 5pm on Tuesday, taking the total number of deaths in hospitals to 2,352, with 29,474 people confirmed to have tested positive for the virus, up 4,324 since Tuesday. 

In Ireland there were a further 14 Covid-19-related fatalities, while 212 confirmed new cases took the overall number of cases to 3,447.

Commenting on Wednesday's announcement, HRI chairman Nicky Hartery said: "We have stressed throughout that government and HSE [Health Service Executive] guidelines around fighting Covid-19 must come first and racing will only be able to resume when the government guidelines permit and when there is adequate medical cover in place to ensure that race meetings can be staged safely. 

"No one can predict when this point will be reached. What the board agreed today was a plan to get back racing once those guidelines allow."

Kavanagh, who is chairman of the European Pattern Committee, also said that it had convened via a phone conference on Monday. Discussions have begun between the relevant Irish, British, French and German representatives as to how the Pattern might unfold when racing eventually resumes.

 
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