CHESTER Racecourse has opened the starting gate on near-£1m plans to welcome back race-goers safely in time for its May fixtures.

While the nation is still under Covid lockdown, it is hoped lockdown measures will be eased over the coming months as millions of people get vaccinations against the virus.

And one of the ways which Chester Race Company is helping the nation reach that goal is by becoming the first large-scale Covid-19 mass vaccination site in the borough this week, administering thousands of vaccines in key priority groups per week, seven days a week.

Now the racecourse, the oldest operating one in the world, is planning to become the first in the UK to welcome back racegoers in time for the Boodles May Festival from May 5-7.

Chester Race Company Ltd is utilising the latest technological advancements and is currently working on a mass Covid-19 testing programme.

This would see everyone attending the three-day festival receiving a rapid lateral flow test upon entry and enjoying fully socially distanced raceday experiences throughout the day.

If Government guidelines allow, the racecourse is hoping up to 5,000 guests will be able to attend on each of the three days.

While this is still well below capacity, this would be a welcome step in the right direction for the racecourse, which last year was only able to hold a limited number of fixtures behind closed gates, with security teams in place to ensure members of the public did not congregate unsafely on the City Walls or Grosvenor Bridge.

Richard Thomas, chief executive at Chester Race Company, told At The Races in an interview that nearly £1 million has been spent on extra outside areas at The Roodee, which have got cover and tables and chairs.

He added his team would be supporting as volunteers to help to deliver the facility.

He said: “We were really keen to ensure that our local area could benefit from a mass vaccination centre and are very pleased to be able to support the NHS with their essential vaccination programme.

“Meanwhile, in anticipation of the Government’s road map announcement, we have been working very hard with local authorities to build a clear operation procedure plan that hopefully could allow us to safely welcome back a limited number of spectators for the Boodles May Festival.

“The delivery of mass on-site testing is at the core of our stringent health and safety measures. Chester Racecourse could provide on-site testing facilities for 5,000 attendees per day with results expected in less than 20 minutes.

“Our overall aim is to deliver a safe, secure environment for an enjoyable three days of racing and we hope that testing will give an added confidence to our attendees, customers, and staff, whose health and safety is of paramount importance.

“We’re proud of our innovative approach here at Chester and are keen to be one of the first venues to be able to bring crowds back safely to live sport. Chester is known for providing a unique race day experience for all attendees and we have developed a number of new socially distanced concepts which will deliver an exemplary level of safety and service – while ensuring the experience is the very best for all of our customers!”

If Government allows the festival to go-ahead, all race-goers would receive food and drink table service.

There would be designated seating areas for everyone, with all-weather cover, giant screens to ensure everyone is able to get close to the racing and even personal book-making facilities.

Contactless order and collection points for food and drink would also be implemented across the course, with staggered arrival and departure times for guests, multiple testing areas and a one-way system in place.

Richard added: “It will certainly be a 'different' racing experience this year – but it will be a very special one with absolute attention to detail to ensure our race-goers have the best experience possible – something we pride ourselves on always delivering here at Chester Racecourse.

“We will of course be operating within all Government guidelines and hope the new experience which we are offering will be something which is welcomed by those attending whom we hope will feel safe and secure but also able to enjoy the best possible time at the racing.”

Chester is the oldest operating racecourse in the world.

Racing started in Chester on Shrove Tuesday in 1539 and in nearly 500 years there have only been three major stoppages; the English Civil War, World War 1 and World War 2. When racing was reinstated in 1946, the pent- up demand resulted in a record attendance of 103,993 racegoers on Cup Day.