MARK Johnston believes the British Horseracing Authority has made a “grave mistake” in suspending racing due to the coronavirus pandemic.
While racing continues to take place behind closed doors in Ireland and Northern Ireland, the ruling body of British racing last week announced a shutdown of the sport in the rest of the UK until the end of April in an attempt to slow down the spread of Covid-19.
Johnston feels the BHA acted too quickly, telling Sky Sports Racing: “I wasn’t supportive of the decision. Who knows what’s going to come? There are many people worse off than us – look at the catering industry and so on, that have been closed down completely.
“That could happen to us at any time and we’ll just have to comply with whatever Government tells us. I think it was a grave mistake to pre-empt that.
“All the talk and all the work now is on getting us back racing again, probably behind closed doors. Any practice run or trial we could have had of racing behind closed doors, even if it had been for a few days, would have helped us get back racing again.
“To just stop overnight when we didn’t have to, and to see Irish racing and South African racing on our televisions instead, seems a terrible thing to have done.
“I really don’t think the decision should have been made so quickly.”
Johnston believes that any extension to the suspension of racing in Britain could lead to owners moving horses abroad.
He said: “If you start thinking about the implications for the breeding industry and the sales and so on, if racing was off for a prolonged period, people are going to have to think about alternatives.
“Some owners will have no choice. We’ve had just one horse who has gone home and another one is moving to Ireland, where racing at the moment continues. Those numbers could change dramatically as things evolve.”
He added: “It’s not a headache in terms of the day-to-day running of the yard. We’ve actually got a surplus of staff.
“We had a sudden influx of people wanting to come for the summer. On Tuesday and Wednesday morning we had 12 applications for temporary work from people whose jumps yards had closed down and they were left without work.
“We’ve got jockeys coming in – Paul Mulrennan, PJ McDonald, Joe Fanning – who would have been coming in anyway – and Andrew Mullen. We’ve got a whole list of jockeys, as they are obviously one of the most immediate sufferers – their income has been cut to zero overnight.”
Two stable stars Johnston is looking forward to getting back on the racecourse are Elarqam and Raffle Prize.
Elarqam won three times during a profitable 2019 campaign, as well as finishing third in the Juddmonte International at York.
“He would probably have been out at the Craven meeting. He’s in great form and has done really well over the winter,” said Johnston.
“He’s our number one – we’re desperate to see him back on track. He could be even better this season. He’s a horse that’s got steadily better through his career.
“He had a fantastic run last year in the Juddmonte International and it’s got to be the dream to go a couple of places better this year.”
Raffle Prize is being aimed at the 1000 Guineas at Newmarket in early May, having won three of her six juvenile starts and finished second in successive Group Ones on her final two appearances.
Johnston added: “She’s absolutely fine. She would probably have been going straight to the Guineas in any event, so if the Guineas was to go ahead as scheduled in the first week in May, that will be her target.
“There’s got to be some doubts about whether she’ll get the trip, which brings memories of Attraction as that was the great doubt with her.
“Pedigree-wise we had some doubts about whether Raffle Prize could get the mile, but physically she’s done well over the winter and looks more like a miler now than she did as a two-year-old, so we’re very hopeful.”
If racing is delayed further, Johnston would be in favour of rescheduling the Classics for later in the year, rather than cancelling them.
He said: “The Classics will obviously be very different, by pushing them back – one of the important things about the Guineas and the Derby is that they do come early in the year, so they’re a test of precocity as well as ability.
“At the same time, these are exceptional times, and I think I’d rather see them rescheduled than not run.”