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The English page - What a difference a year makes

Hoppegarten September 1957...


David Conolly-Smith


Ausgabe 650 vom Freitag, 08.01.2021

This time last year the term coronavirus would have meant nothing to the vast majority of the world´s population. Little more than two months later, the World Health Organisation (WHO) had declared a worldwide pandemic; it turned out to be the most serious one since the Spanish flu epidemic which followed World War One, and it is still with us today. From mid-March onwards public life – museums, libraries, concerts, cinemas and other cultural events, shops, restaurants – was practically closed down all over the world. Sports were badly affected, including horse racing. The nature of the pandemic meant that all crowds had to be avoided, and most sporting events took place, if at all, behind closed doors.

In fact, racing probably got off more lightly than other major events; the Olympic Games and Munich´s Oktoberfest were among those cancelled. Racing resumed in Germany on May 7th with twelve races at Hanover, including three listed races. They were each worth 7,000 euros to the winner, and the lower grade races on the card only 1,500 euros, i.e. half the normal amount, and this was to be repeated throughout the year. No spectators were present, not even the owners, but the whole of the day´s programme was shown live on a livestream which was easily available and free.

This Hanover fixture was actually the first race meeting to take place in a leading European country since the first lockdown began. France, the U.K. and Ireland soon followed suit but also behind closed doors. Throughout the summer the situation gradually improved, and slowly small numbers of racegoers were allowed back on to the racecourse and betting shops were also reopened. However prize-money was still at an extremely low level, although a small number of top races, such as the German Derby and Preis der Diana (Oaks), did carry normal money thanks to the support of their loyal sponsors.

By high summer and early autumn things were looking better, and on October 3rd, a German public holiday, 3,900 racegoers were present at Hoppegarten to watch the Grosser Preis von Berlin. The number of infected persons and deaths from Covid-19 was by this time tiny. Then the dreaded “second wave” struck, as predicted, and the numbers shot up again, even higher than they had been in the spring. We are currently under a severe lockdown which has been extended to the end of January and almost certain to be extended further, particularly as reports of various mutations of the virus mean that the human race is not yet out of the woods.

The good news is that new vaccines to fight the disease are now available, and it is expected that everybody who wishes can be vaccinated by the summer. There is certainly a decent chance that life will be almost normal again by July, but it is no certainty. Deutscher Galopp is currently forecasting 141 race days in 2021, compared to 146 in 2019 and 96 in 2020. Prize-money would then be 11.3 million euros, compared 13.1 million in 2019 and 8.6 million last year. This is as yet all pie in the sky, as there could still be another shock around the corner. The dates for the top races have already  been scheduled, with the German Derby at Hamburg on July 4th and the Preis der Diana at Düsseldorf on August 1st. However these could always be changed at short notice if the circumstances change. The “Grosse Woche” at Baden-Baden would then run from August 28th to September 5th. However there are clearly question marks hanging over both Hamburg´s Derby meeting and Baden-Baden´s big week, as both racecourses will be under new management this year. and both these extremely popular meetings, which normally would attract huge crowds, were among the chief sufferers last year.: no gate money, no catering, no on course betting.

The betting turnover in 2020 did not take as great a hit as might have been expected; according to the official figures, released this week, a total of 26 million euros was bet, compared to 26.7 million in 2019, down only 3%. This was due to a doubling of off track turnover, while on track betting for obvious reasons was down by 90%. This was mainly due to three factors: an initiative started by three prominent racegoers to encourage punters to bet on every race, the agreement by off track betting operators in the spring to blow back all betting on German races into the course tote pools, and the success of the livestream programmes. Whether all this can be repeated in 2021 remains to be seen.

It is therefore almost impossible to make any predictions for this coming season. If the vaccination programmes work, and if no new nasty developments arrive, we could be back to near normal, as stated above, by July, with racegoers on the course and races with full prize-money. Equally obviously, things could also go badly wrong, with a continued, or even new, pandemic, and lockdown all year. This writer is an optimist and is expecting, or least hoping, for the first possibility to happen. In this spirit then, we wish all readers a very happy and healthy New Year. 

David Conolly-Smith

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