Grand National: 'I just feel that racing has been stopped too soon' - Lucinda Russell

By Tom EnglishBBC Scotland
One for Arhtur won the Grand National for Scotland in 2017
One for Arthur ended a 38-year wait for a Scottish winner in the Grand National in 2017

In a normal world, Lucinda Russell would be dancing to the beat of hooves right now. Had Covid-19 not taken it away, then Aintree would only be a fortnight in the distance and One For Arthur's bid to win a second Grand National would have had Russell and her team in a state of high giddiness.

Arthur was made for Aintree. First in 2017 and sixth in 2019, he's been in great physical condition of late, as good as if not better than in the weeks leading up to his greatest moment three years ago.

"He's absolutely A1," says Russell. "In the grand scheme of things, it's only a race. We're very lucky because we've already got one in the bag. There are very serious things going on in the world right now, but it was sad when they called off the National. I'm not sure they made the right decision."

So much has been written about how the coronavirus is impacting the bigger sports, but racing hasn't had much of a look-in. They raced at Kelso behind closed doors at the beginning of the week, but everything is in lockdown now. No Grand National, no Scottish National, no Ayr, no Perth, no nothing. Everything has gone indefinitely and just as there are fears for football clubs there are also fears in the racing industry for the future of some of Scotland's racecourses in these scary times.

"By nature, I'm an optimist," says Russell. "If we can get back racing in two or three months then that's okay. The long term effects are worrying, though. We rely on our owners to keep financing horses and a lot of owners are in the hospitality industry and that's bad news.

"If you have a horse in training you can generally get a return when it races. A lot of people rely on that return to make it affordable and they are getting zero return. We've spoken to all of our owners in the last 48 hours and there's an awkward feeling about it, the majority are business people and they are very very worried. We are dealing with good people. I just feel that racing has been stopped too soon."

In Ireland, they're still going. They'll be racing in Dundalk on Saturday, in Downpatrick on Sunday, in Naas on Monday and in Clonmel on Tuesday. The industry carries on with no spectators allowed, no owners allowed, no horses from overseas and with clear policies of social distancing and all manner of other provisos.

Horse Racing Ireland, who report that 28,000 direct and indirect jobs depend on their sport, review their stance on a daily basis. There will probably come a day - and maybe very soon - when they close it all down, but for now they're getting on with it. Russell looks across the Irish Sea and wonders why it's deemed safe to race over there and it's not safe to race over here.

"Just because every other sport in the UK has shut down doesn't mean it's right for racing," she says. "It's a rubbish reason. You have to take everything on a case-by-case situation. I can't see why racing can't continue. If they can introduce these measures in Ireland then why couldn't we have them in Britain? The lads in the yard are still looking after the horses, they're still riding the horses. If they can ride them on the gallops here then why can't they do it at the racetrack?

"There are more important things going on, of course, but I'm just giving the racing side of it. Today, I'm grumpy. I get cross. If we were racing behind closed doors and with tight restrictions then at least we'd have it on telly, we'd have prize money, we'd have betting income, we'd have owners who have a chance of getting a return on their investment, we'd have stables and racecourses that are not under threat.

"We've had a bit of a knee jerk reaction by cancelling it all. Is that a British thing? Maybe it is. Racing was cancelled very early when we could have kept on racing this week, maybe next week. Things will change and there would be a time when we would have had to stop, but at the moment I can't understand why we're stopping everything."

'They have an unfair advantage in Ireland now'

Russell's view might not be a popular one outside of her own world, but inside racing she'll have a lot of support from trainers who are now looking at an indefinite period of time with no action. She's not planning on laying off anybody from her Milnathort yard and praises all of her staff to the hilt for their cheery disposition in the face of such uncertainty.

"We have a great team and they're just getting on with it," she says. "The scary thing is that we don't know how long we're going to be like this.

"I just get annoyed when I see what they are doing in Ireland. It's a massive industry in Ireland and they are finding a way of protecting it, as best they can. But it's a massive industry in Britain as well. I don't know if the BHA (British Horseracing Authority) have spoken out strongly enough about it.

"In Ireland, they have thought it out, they're not just doing it willy nilly. They are giving their industry a chance to survive. I haven't spoken to the BHA because I've been so cross and when I get cross I can't talk about it. They have an unfair advantage in Ireland now. We've just had Cheltenham and the Irish have walked all over us again and won all the big races and why is that? They have the support and the mentality to stand up for racing."

Arthur will have to wait another year for the National. He'll be 12-years-old by then. Not many 12-year-olds get themselves in the shake-up in the big race, but he doesn't owe a thing to anybody. Like the industry itself, he'll have a long rest now, but how long? And what will the industry look like on the other side?

There are infinitely bigger questions around the coronavirus, but that doesn't invalidate the concerns of the sporting world or lessen the worry of people like Russell as she tries to keep the show on the road.

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