AFTER almost two years, Mid Wales harness racing fans will finally be allowed to return to watch events this weekend.

The meeting, being held at Broadheath Common in Presteigne on Sunday, June 20, will be the first one attended by spectators since September 2019, as coronavirus restrictions continue to ease and life in Powys starts to get back towards something approaching normal.

The race meeting will be the second joint meeting held between Wales & West Harness Racing Association and Wales & Borders, with the two organisations working together during what has been an incredibly difficult period for people, sporting events and institutions involved with the sport in Powys.

The first meeting of the season was held on June 6, but was done so behind closed doors. It was hailed as a success, despite being held without owners and spectators present.

Promoters are hoping this weekend’s landmark event will signal the end of racing behind closed doors and a return to full-scale events, packed with audiences and excitement.

“The past 21 months or so has been extremely challenging for everybody, and harness racing has been no exception,” said Gareth Bevan, chairman of Wales & West Harness Racing.

“We’re lucky enough that we’ve been able to continue racing without spectators at a purpose-built track at Tairgwaith, but the buzz and atmosphere created by a crowd has really been missed, and I know all competitors can’t wait to have crowds back, and I’m sure spectators can’t wait to return to the racetrack for a family day out to cheer on their favourites and have a flutter with the bookies.

“Due to the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, last season was delayed and it soon became apparent that running a race meeting on grass wasn’t going to be possible.

“Fortunately, Wales & West were able to work with the Amman Valley Trotting Club to stage a series of successful races at the all-weather track at Tairgwaith throughout July, August and September, giving competitors and horses a chance to compete. Unfortunately, however, these had to be staged behind closed doors, without spectators.”

Harness racing is in the same boat as many other sporting events across Wales in terms of spectator access. Many Mid Wales football clubs have resumed pre-season training and friendlies, while the cricket season is in full swing, with the various Marches League competitions involving Mid Wales sides well under way. But many football teams, for example, got together when restrictions first eased last summer and organised training and friendlies until the second lockdown was brought in, whereas in harness racing circles there has been no action whatsoever.

Wales continues to make progress at it heads towards Alert Level 1, providing increasing opportunities for sport and physical activity. The Welsh Government announced that, from June 7, larger outdoor organised gatherings and events, such as football matches and sporting activities, can go ahead for up to 4,000 people standing and 10,000 people seated – although the Football Association of Wales is currently limiting friendlies to 100 people.

Many people in the harness racing community may have been feeling even more isolated than others due to living more rurally than most. And Gareth says this weekend’s race meeting is a massive shot in the arm that everyone needs.

“Harness racing is a sport that often involves the whole family, so having spectators back rather than just trainers, drivers and grooms will mean that once again the whole family can get involved and enjoy the day out,” he said.

“The harness racing community is like a big family, and the races are an opportunity for people to meet up with friends for a catch-up. The absence of spectators at the races last year, coupled with the day to day isolation caused by lockdown, has meant that a lot of people haven’t seen friends for over 18 months, so Sunday will undoubtedly be a great occasion for people to meet up.

“Mid Wales is a such a rural location that, for some people, going racing on the weekends throughout the summer might be the only social interaction they will have.

“While the fight against Covid isn’t over, the return of numerous sporting events over the past few weeks will hopefully give people a sense of hope and normality, after what has been an incredibly difficult period.”

Sunday’s meeting will start at 12.45pm with qualifiers and workouts, followed by a competitive card of around 10 races.

Although the re-introduction of spectators will be a huge boost, Covid protocols will be in place, and Track & Trace will be in operation, with spectators attending asked to fill out their details in advance to save time on entry.