Horse Racing Ireland has decided to proceed with racing during the coronavirus outbreak "in strict adherence to Government guidelines regarding Covid-19 and staged without members of the general public".

A statement from the HRI said: "This decision is motivated by the need to maintain employment and incomes for people working in the industry, and on the basis of being able to achieve and maintain all HSE advice and instructions."

The HRI said attendance at the event would be limited to key personnel such as stable staff, jockeys and trainers, and that "strict protocols around social distancing and sanitisation" would be enforced.

Owners will not be allowed to attend, oveseas runners have been prohibited and there will be 30-minute interval between races to assist social distancing.   

Racing began without the public in Dundalk last Friday night. The HRI said there would no more evening meetings for the time being and only one per day to alleviate the strain on medical resources.

This Friday's meeting at the Louth venue has therefore been moved to the afternoon while Sunday's meeting at Naas has been moved to Monday to avoid a clash with Downpatrick. Other changes this month include Dundalk (moving from 27 March to 25 March), Navan (28 March to 27 March) and the Curragh (March 29 to 28).

Nicky Hartery, Chairman of Horse Racing Ireland, said: "These are unprecedented and sombre times and we are seeking the best ways to support the racing community and industry throughout what lies ahead. 

"Health and welfare of employees and industry participants is the prime consideration and within that context, we have introduced protocols which can allow racing to continue and thousands of families who rely on the sector to maintain a livelihood.

"This will be kept under review on a daily basis and we are also planning measures for reprogramming fixtures as it becomes required. Changes to the programme will be separately announced.

"We have consulted with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine throughout this process and we will continue to strictly adhere to the Government and HSE advice.

"We have made it clear at all times that our medical facilities and personnel will be available for the Government to use if necessary – that will take precedence above any other consideration."

The British Horse Racing Authority had announced plans for racing to continue behind closed doors in the UK but yesterday decided to suspend all racing until the end of April. 

Over 250,000 people attended over four days of the Cheltenham Festival last week, which controversially went ahead as the UK had not advised against mass gatherings at that point. 

Multiple Grade One-winning trainer Paul Nolan was among those to back Horse Racing Ireland's decision.

He said: "It's obviously good news if we can keep racing, as long as everybody is mindful of the situation and is conscientious in washing their hands and doing everything they can to keep people safe.

"You see what's going on worldwide and obviously the main thing we need to do is keep everybody safe and well.

"I was racing in Wexford on Tuesday and it is a little bit strange. There was obviously no public there and jockeys had to come out of the weighing room one by one and a certain distance apart.

"It is going to be a little bit different, but it's not that hard to do all these extra things and if it stops of the spread of the virus and keeps us all racing, then it's definitely worth it.

"If you don't feel great, you should stop and go home and if you feel OK, then you should work away for now and see how it goes."

Dublin-based trainer Ado McGuinness added: "I'm delighted. They've done a very good job regarding safety so far and with people not interacting," said the Dublin-based trainer.

"There might be no atmosphere, but we are racing and keeping people in work. It's an industry and if we don't race for six or seven weeks, jobs will go.

"I'm happy we're still going, but we're being very cautious. There are big spaces on racecourses, which help, and if nobody in the industry comes down with it, I see no reason why we can't race.

"A big difference between the UK (and Ireland) is that we use private ambulances and the Government wanted us to keep going, which was a big plus. I'm sure people will disagree, but it's great for our industry."

McGuinness acknowledges the situation could change in a matter of days, adding: "If we can't race for two months, with a recession likely to come, it's great that we can stay racing, but it could change in two days' time.

"We haven't got many runners at Dundalk on Friday as we were giving a few a break, thinking of the new turf season, but as long as we're racing, we're happy.

"I was at Dundalk last week, having to take our own food and drink, but the fact it's switching to the day time will make it easier for everyone I think.

"There's no owners allowed, so they need a lot of thanks, because if they weren't there we'd have no sport.
"Hopefully we can stay going - it was a big relief when I could tell my yard racing was going ahead."