March 16, 2020 / 6:44 PM / 14 days ago

UPDATE 1-Horse racing-British race meetings to go ahead, but no spectators

(Adds betting figures)

LONDON, March 16 (Reuters) - British horse racing meetings will continue but without spectators until at least the end of March, the British Horseracing Authority said on Monday.

Last week’s Cheltenham Festival went ahead as planned with around 60,000 fans on the course each day, despite most other sports shutting down because of the coronavirus crisis.

However, new measures were announced hours before the British government acted to toughen its response to the escalating threat in the country.

“Racecourses and racing yards are embedded in their local communities and we are acutely aware of our responsibilities to protect public health,” BHA chief executive Nick Rust said.

“The restrictions we are putting in place to close racing to spectators and limit attendees will reduce demand on public services. We also have a range of measures in place designed in response to the government’s guidance on public health and we will continue to update these as appropriate.

“Any fixtures that take place in England, Wales and Scotland, initially until the end of March, will take place without spectators and with restrictions on the number of attendees.”

Contrary to many European countries battling the crisis, Britain is yet to outlaw mass gatherings, but the Premier League and Football League have opted to suspend soccer matches.

Continuing with horse racing will offer some comfort for the British betting industry which has been denied much of the live sport on which its business is based.

The Flutter Group, which operates betting companies Betfair and Paddy Power, estimated that it would face a 90 to 110 million pound ($111 million-$136 million) impact on full-year earnings if curbs on sports fixtures remained until August.

That figure was based on horse racing continuing in Britain, Ireland and Australia — a market worth 30 million pounds per month — even behind closed doors.

With Prime Minister Boris Johnson calling for a stop to non-essential contact and unnecessary travel, the situation could change in the weeks ahead.

“Decisions may have to be made to cancel meetings,” the BHA said. “Every effort will be made to notify customers and the betting industry at the earliest opportunity.”

The UK death toll reached 53 on Monday with 171 new cases of coronavirus, taking the total to 1,543. (Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Ed Osmond, William Maclean)

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