Zodiakos wins first race at Newcastle, Judd Trump also triumphs

Social distancing was observed in the paddock by jockeys and trainers at Newcastle

The sun shone in Newcastle on Monday but as Zodiakos passed the post a neck ahead of stablemate Al Ozzdi to win a thrilling opener shortly after 13:00 BST, there was nothing but an eerie silence.

After 76 days without horse racing in Britain, this was how it returned, with the behind-closed-doors victory for the 22-1 chance, ridden by Jimmy Sullivan and trained by Roger Fell in the Welcome Back British Racing Handicap.

Those involved with the sport were glad to be back, although there was sadness too: December Second – trained by Philip Kirby – died after suffering a fall in the 17:05 race.

The news cast a shadow over a significant day. Preparations for the all-weather meeting at Gosforth Park had been meticulous as elite sport in England made its return after the coronavirus lockdown.

The car park at the track was empty, with race goers, owners, bookmakers and most of the media all kept out behind a ring of temporary wire fencing encircling the racecourse.

Each of the 10 races were limited to 12 runners and apart from jockeys, the course was only open to a few people: trainers’ representatives, stable staff, officials and a small number of media.

Those allowed in had to complete a three-stage screening process, including medical checks before departure and on arrival.

Masks were also required by jockeys and stalls handlers with the heat adding to the feelings of unfamiliarity and discomfort.

“Riding in the mask, it is very warm and after pulling up I pulled it down a little just to get a few breaths in,” admitted Sullivan after his win.

“It wasn’t too bad, though. It’s manageable and it’s the sort of thing that, in a week, you won’t even notice.”

Social distancing measures were also strictly enforced at the course, with markers on the floor, two-metre warnings on the walls and a one-way system in place.

With no bars and restaurants open, it was packed lunches in paper bags for those who needed to be fed.

In the paddock, the horses still made their way around the parade ring, but jockeys had to follow a set route in and markings showed where they and the trainers representatives could stand.

Riders also had to use a different weighing room to normal, because of its size, and at the end of the race, only the winner returned to the paddock while all the other runners had to unsaddle in a dedicated area near the racecourse stables.

With no on-course bookies and high street shops still closed until 15 June, online and telephone betting were the options open for those who wanted to put their money on the day’s events.

Jockeys wearing masks kept their distance from each other

With another meeting at Gosforth Park on Tuesday, plus a card at Kempton as racing builds up to the first Classic on Saturday with the 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket, the pressure was on Newcastle to deliver.

“It is vital we got this right,” said Martin Cruddace, chief executive of racecourse owner Arena Racing Company.

“We are trailblazers for the sport and there is an incredible pressure, but it is a privilege as well and we are delighted it falls on us.

“It has been an amazing effort by everyone.”

The course’s efforts earned praise from British Horseracing Authority’s chief regulatory officer Brant Dunshea.

“We have had a few teething problems with some IT issues which were ironed out,” he said. “But the racecourse has done a fantastic job in how it has laid out the course. It is a very well secured site and we are very impressed with the facilities.

“It is important we learn from each day. In the current climate, we can’t be too careful.”

There was, though, pause to reflect on the death of December Second. The BHA, expressing its sadness, said: “Equine welfare has been an important consideration in our planning to return – for example, there have been limits placed on field sizes as part of the sport’s resumption of racing strategy.

“Racehorses have been able to continue to train and exercise during the lockdown and have been able to maintain their normal level of fitness, looked after by dedicated staff.

“Their safety has been an important consideration in our planning for return but it is impossible to remove risk altogether.”

‘Just to get playing again is a relief’ – snooker returns

Judd Trump
World champion Judd Trump played in the first snooker match on the sport’s return to action

As racing resumed at a near-deserted venue, there was the same eerie feeling in Milton Keynes as snooker returned to action behind closed doors.

The Championship League was the first sports event in the UK to be shown on free-to-air TV since the easing of restrictions – with an on-site hotel at the Marshall Arena allowing players to isolate before play.

World champion Judd Trump had to isolate for 18 hours after being given a Covid-19 test at 16:00 BST on Sunday. With Trump – along with the tournament’s seven other players and 35 staff working at the venue – returning a negative result, play began on Monday.

Trump, who progressed as winner of his group, had to wear a face mask and adhere to social distancing guidelines – with players sitting two metres apart and barred from sharing equipment, such as rests and cue extensions.

The event was broadcast on ITV4, with presenter Jill Douglas and the pundits all working remotely from home.

World number one Trump – and the rest of the snooker circuit – is getting used to a rejigged calendar; the season would normally end in May, at the conclusion of the World Championship, which is now set to start on 31 July.

Trump told BBC Sport: “In an ideal scenario, I would be on holiday somewhere now with another world crown. But for me, the last month was starting to get quite difficult, being stuck inside all the time.

“I played snooker whenever I could and tried to stay sharp but we are back now.

“Nothing is ideal and it is changing week on week – but just to be able to get to some kind of normality in playing snooker again is a nice relief.

“When you are playing out there, it takes your mind of things for a couple of hours and you can forget about anything else that is going on.”

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