Two leading jockeys walked away from high-speed falls in a race at Newcastle on Monday afternoon as the first day of racing in Britain since mid-March was marred by a fatal injury to a horse in the same incident after December Second apparently clipped the heels of another runner.
The 12 runners in the mile-and-a-half race were quickening up with around two furlongs to run when December Second, with PJ McDonald riding, crashed out in the middle of the field and brought down Financial Conduct, the mount of Jim Crowley.
The jockeys were brought back to the weighing room in separate vehicles to comply with physical distancing rules. Crowley missed his two rides in subsequent races but is expected to be fit to ride at Kempton on Tuesday, while McDonald rode in the last race on the card. Having been attended on the track by veterinary staff, however, December Second was found to have sustained a serious injury and was put down.
Falls are unusual on the Flat compared with racing over jumps, but can be more dangerous as they occur without warning and horses are normally travelling at higher speed.
“We are all deeply saddened about the loss of December Second this afternoon,” a spokesperson for the British Horseracing Authority said. “No one will be more affected by this than the trainer Phil Kirby, the owners and the stable staff who provided the horse with first-class care throughout his life.
“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 sports resumption of racing strategy, but it is impossible to remove risk altogether.
“On average a horse falls once in every 1,000 runners in Flat races. Statistics shows that horses are more likely to suffer injury at home in a field than on a Flat racecourse, and at the racecourse our horses have access to the best possible care. December Second was treated by vets within seconds of his fall.”
The remainder of the Newcastle card passed without serious incident or any significant breaches of the strict new protocols in place to prevent the spread of coronavirus, although two horses were withdrawn at the start after showing a reluctance to enter the stalls and another was declared a non-runner after getting upset in the stalls while the start was delayed.
The BHA had asked trainers to ensure that inexperienced horses in particular were thoroughly schooled in the starting procedures before the resumption of racing, since only two handlers are currently allowed for each horse.
Freedom Flyer, an unraced three-year-old and the favourite for the third race, refused to load even when blindfolded and the delay caused Ejtilaab, who had gone in smoothly, to become unruly. He was then taken out of the stalls before the field set off, while Northern Charm, another unraced three-year-old, also refused to enter the stalls in the subsequent race.
For jockeys, the new on-course regime meant no showers, no saunas and face masks during races, while also trying to fine-tune their fitness after a prolonged spell away from the track.
“Its my first ride in a race for two months and its not easy with the weather being warm and having a mask on,” Andrea Atzeni said after riding Oakenshield to victory in a sprint handicap, “but weve got to get used to it and were happy to adapt.”
Jimmy Sullivan, who rode the first winner of the day on the 22-1 shot Zodiakos, was one of several jockeys clearly short of breath after their return to race-riding. “Im blowing a bit,” Sullivan said. “Hopefully that will have blown away the cobwebs. In this heat, 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. It wasnt too bad, though, its manageable and its the sort of thing that in a week, you wont even notice it.” Jockeys are also expected to bring their own food and fluids to the track.
“Theres very little food on offer, so thats good,” Paul Mulrennan said, “because it may not look like it, but weve all put on a few pounds living normal lives for the last couple of months. The less food, the better.”
While British racing adjusted to its new post-lockdown environment at Newcastle on Monday, the first Classic races of the European season were being run at Deauville, where Victor Ludorums smooth run from second-last in little more than a furlong secured an impressive success in the Prix dEssai des Poulains (French 2,000 Guineas).
André Fabres colt finished only third on his seasonal debut but was back to his Group One-winning form in last seasons Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere as he gave his trainer an eighth success in the Classic. Fabre and Mickaël Barzalona were denied a Classic double later in the day, however, as Tropbeau, the favourite for the French 1,000 Guineas, was only fourth behind Frederic Rossis Dream And Do.