It’s racing. But not as we know it.
The sun shone and temperatures soared in Naas for the welcome return of live racing after an 11-week absence. Horses, jockeys and trainers were giddy at the prospect of galloping once more.But without fans it all felt a little, well, flat.
Health screening, temperature checks and strict social distancing measures were all enforced.
Only essential staff were allowed in, after completing a health questionnaire 48 hours in advance.
Temperatures were checked on entry by staff wearing masks, gloves and plastic visors. Industrial quantities of hand sanitiser were liberally placed around the course too.
For jockey Chris Hayes, it was a welcome return to action.
"I’m raring to go," he said squinting in the bright sunlight after removing his facemask to talk.
"It’s been a long 11 weeks. We’ve done behind closed doors before but it was a different feel. We’ve had to go through a lot more health screening today. But it was all very simple."
He’s hopeful it can prove a successful model for the summer, with or without fans.
"We’ve proved it can work. There’s more restrictions in place now but you’d do anything to be back," he added, reflecting the view of most in attendance.
With the tannoy blasting, horses neighing and trainers whispering last minute instructions, it almost felt like the real thing. But on a day made for punters to sip a cool drink in the stands, the energy of bookmakers and hollering punters was sorely missed. At times it felt more like a dress rehearsal.
"It’s strange," said Niall Cronin, Communications Manager with the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board.
"But it’s good to be here. It’s so important for so many jobs, so many rural industries and so many people that are directly involved in this sport.It feeds directly down to the breeders, so it’s important to a lot of people that we get racing back."
Amid all the new regulations though, some things never change. Trainer Aidan O’Brien was straight back to winning ways as More Beautiful was an easy winner in the opener, with plenty of social distance between first and second.
Horse Racing Ireland are holding out hopes punters may return in some capacity later in the summer.But for now this is how racing is going to look. It may not be thousands thronging into Galway dressed in their best.
But after 11 weeks in lockdown, it’s better than nothing.