Let’s face it, we all knew going into the Royal Ascot festival that things couldn’t be the same given the current Covid-19 pandemic the globe currently finds itself in.
But, with racing and Premier League football returning to our television screens of late, at least things are starting to get back to normal – even if it is a new normal that we must embrace in the age of social distancing, Covid-19 protocols and behind-closed-doors sport.
Being one of those most socialable presenters in the racing world, it is a transition that has taken a bit of getting used to for ITV’s Matt Chapman. So, we caught up with him to find out what it has been like to work at a Royal Ascot festival being held in such strange circumstances.
“It’s really very odd being here, and speaking to a lot of the jockeys, they found it very weird as well,” said our star pundit. “It all feels a little bit pointless in some ways. But, of course, it’s anything but pointless.”
“It is very strange having racing without anyone cheering, no owners and winners coming in at Royal Ascot with only a ripple of applause – mainly, from the ITV crew. A lot of people have said ‘racing is a sport that doesn’t need a crowd’ – but, racing actually thrives on having a crowd.
People love a day out at the racecourse, it’s fun, and there is lots more to the sport than just the horses.
“This is very, very different of course. But on the flip side of the coin, we’re racing, there’s betting turnover and people are punting and enjoying it. It’s a spectacle and we have to start somewhere because the sport has to get going.”
Health and safety is paramount for everyone these days and Matt was kind enough to take us through some of the measures The British Horseracing Authority (BHA) have put in place to keep everyone safe at Royal Ascot.
“To come to Ascot and to have any chance of coming into the track at all, I have to go through what is basically an exam,” Matt explained.
“They call it a ‘BHA Covid-19 module’, but it is like sitting a test. It’s quite a lengthy exam as well, it involves watching a number of videos for approximately 40, to 45 minutes and then answering questions based on the video. I then have a medical test. Not a physical one, but I must answer a whole load of questions via email.
“When we subsequently get to the track, I have my ID checked (passport or driving licence) and I have my temperature checked as well. Provided that is all okay – and usually my temperature only raises if I’ve banged in a winner or two – I’m then allowed into the track.
“Following that, when I get to the ITV area, I have to sign in again there – even though I’m sure people at ITV have a rough idea who I am. Then I have to have my temperature checked a second time there in the space of about five minutes from the previous test. So, no stone is left unturned in all of this, and that procedure will be very similar for everyone else that is coming to this track – jockeys and trainers alike.
Face masks have to be worn at all times if you are in the Paddock area.
“I’m cordoned off for ITV doing the winning trainer/jockey interviews and in my little area I’m allowed to take my mask off. But, for instance, if I wanted to go to the toliet, I would then have to put my face mask back on to leave my area.
“It is very, very strict. I’ll put it like this, you would be the most unlucky person in the world to catch Covid-19 at Royal Ascot.”
Chapman is usually the star of the show when it comes to immersing the viewer in the unique world of the betting ring at a racecourse and it was clear from speaking to him, just how much he is missing the heat of the action in there.
“From the TV point of view, you just try to make it fun,” said our resident motormouth.
The betting ring is the throbbing heart of a racecourse.
“That’s where the sound is, the action is and people are running around. The cash is being taken from people and then given back to them in there too. The ring is where the cheering comes from in front of the grandstand.
“It’s not just me missing that, I would have thought anyone who enjoys horse racing is missing it because it’s one of the key factors of being on a racecourse. That’s what you love, the sound out there. It’s like a little village of action almost.
“Racecourses can be quiet and peaceful places during midweek meetings, but the one place they are never peaceful or quiet is in the betting ring.”
Being best known for not giving his interviewees an easy ride, we asked Matt about his feelings on now having to perform interviews at the permitted social distance from his subjects.
“I think the trainers and jockeys are finding these interviews the best thing ever,” the master of the ‘Yeeehaaa’ chuckled. “I suspect they’d like it to be 3 or 4 metres while Matt Chapman is talking to them!”
“Don’t open up anything that we might bump into Matt at! But on the serious side of things, it really makes very little difference to the interview.
“Okay, you can’t shake hands to say hello or pat people on the back, but it is what it is. 2 metres means you can still have a conversation and I wonder in some ways does being that far away make it easier to ask some slightly more searching questions.
“I believe it’s possible that it does, because you’ve got that gap to run away quicker if you need to!”
Finally, it would be remiss of us if we didn’t ask Matt for a punt before Royal Ascot week closed and as always, our racing savant didn’t leave us down.
“If everyone wanted one bet before the end of the week, it would be a familiar name for a lot of the Irish”, said Matt.
“I think ANTHONY VAN DYCK is going to take all the beating in the Hardwicke Stakes on Friday.
“He’s not going to be a huge price, so if you wanted a couple of each-way gambles at slightly bigger odds I would go with GOLDEN HORDE in the Commonwealth Cup or indeed, DURSTON in the closing handicap on Friday. He’s got a great chance for David Simcock.
“But, if you just want a winner, it’s Anthony Van Dyck. He would be my NAP for Friday at Royal Ascot!”
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