HORSE RACING is back in Scotland but not as we know it. The easing of restrictions will see elite sport return from tomorrow after a three-month hiatus, with Ayr Racecourse the first to welcome back jockeys, trainers and horses. Hamilton and Musselburgh will also re-open before the end of the month, while Perth will host the first jumps meeting next month.

There will be one significant difference at all these events, however: no punters. There will be no roar as a favourite approaches the finishing line and, most significantly, no cash pouring into racecourse and bookies’ tills for quite some time yet.

David Brown accepts this is how it has to be. Ayr Racecourse’s managing director has been busy preparing for this moment ever since English racing was given the green light to return at the start of the month.

He is glad for the opportunity to finally open the gates again but admitted it won’t be the same – either financially or atmospherically – until racegoers are also back.

“It’s great that we are finally getting going again, albeit behind closed doors,” he said.

“After racing was able to start down in England a few weeks ago we were always hopeful that we wouldn’t be too far behind. So we’ve been making plans behind the scenes to make sure we would be ready for racing to re-start here, too, while meeting all the social distancing and other requirements.

“But I think it will be hugely strange with no customers. The feedback I’ve had from other courses is that it’s a very surreal experience without them.

“It’s just good that we’re seeing the wheels finally starting to turn. Sport provides so much enjoyment for people and a feelgood factor, especially when there are so many bad things going on in the world. And while this week isn’t going to be us back in the normal format it’s at least the first step to hopefully getting back to some sort of normality soon.”

Three months without racing and the ancillary benefits that usually brings to the local economy has come at a hefty cost. Brown reckons Ayr have lost “millions” already due to cancelled race meets, most notably the Scottish Grand National in April. Other non-sporting events such as the planned Little Mix concert and the Ayr County Show have also fallen by the wayside. It all adds up and can’t be recouped further down the line.

“There’s no doubt about it - racing’s finances have been dramatically affected by this whole pandemic,” he added.

“Although we race throughout the year, our summer season from the Scottish National through to the Ayr Gold Cup is when the majority of our revenues are generated through ticket sales and hospitality. Without customers it’s a major blow to the finances.

“We’ve also got a hotel on the site and welcome a lot of non-racing events so we’ve endured some severe difficulties. In terms of lost revenue, you’re talking millions of pounds due to the lack of any activity at the racecourse.

“When that money is gone, it’s gone. We can’t get back another Scottish Grand National. If you lose a race meeting it’s a goner in terms of the fixture list. It’s not like football when you can re-arrange for another date.

“I can’t underestimate the financial implications from this loss of activity and revenue. We’ve always tried to run the company prudently but inevitably there are going to be severe challenges ahead.

“Hopefully there will be ways of mitigating those losses through additional government support but there will be some tough decisions ahead.”

There have had to be adaptations to make the course compliant with current guidelines, as Brown explained.

“We’re restricted to key participants at the course such as jockeys, racing grooms and trainers. Anyone intending to attend will need to have completed an online learning exercise about Covid-19 and the usage of PPE.

“We’ve had to adapt our jockey changing area and created a new area within one of our marquees to maintain 2metre distancing. It wouldn’t have been practical within the existing arrangements. That’s just one of the changes of protocol that we’ve put in to ensure people stay safe while here.”

The biggest question now for Ayr is whether the Gold Cup in September is played out in front of a full house or just a handful of spectators.

“I would love to welcome customers back to the racecourse for that one,” added Brown.

“Lockdown is starting to open up and businesses are getting going again. It’s just about timing. But from our perspective we would love nothing more than to have a crowd in for the Gold Cup.”