Newcastle Jockey Club is hopeful of having race crowds back in time for the spring carnival as it begins to welcome small groups to meetings from this Saturday.
Newcastle Racecourse, which has not had crowds since March because of COVID-19 restrictions, will cater for 100 racegoers on Saturday under guidelines allowing 50 people per approved area.
Chevals Restaurant and the Mark Murphy Lounge have been deemed suitable for patrons, who must book a seat in the venues and remain there for the meeting. Social distancing and bio-security measures are in place, including temperature checks on arrival.
Owners will be allowed in the downstairs members' area half an hour before and after their horse races, although services will not be open.
"It's just an area for them to go out and watch the race from," NJC chief Matt Benson said. "You are still not allowed to go out into the mounting yard and talk to jockeys."
Restrictions are predicted to ease again, allowing one person per four-square metres, before the following Saturday's meeting.
"It's baby steps this weekend and hopefully it can ramp up a notch the following Saturday, so we'll keep our fingers crossed," Benson said.
He said the track's pavilion remained off-limits because it was still being used as an overflow area for jockeys.
After the next two Saturdays, Newcastle will not host racing again until August 8. The club's spring carnival is on September 18-19.
Benson told the Newcastle Herald six weeks ago that the club was not budgeting to have crowds again this calendar year because of COVID-19. However, the easing of restrictions since has raised hopes of significant crowds returning for the spring features and the $1 million The Hunter meeting on November 14.
"It's certainly looking better," he said. "I thought we'd be struggling to have any crowd, but it just boils down to what the requirements are as far as traceability and booking into venues."
He said a crowd into the thousands "would be ideal" and "we'll work towards that and hope it happens".
While Racing NSW has assured prizemoney for The Hunter, Benson said the NJC was still assessing levels for its spring features given the losses from COVID-19.
AAP reports: They might have different ways of spelling a shared Christian name, but Chris Waller and Kris Lees are in sync with each other when it comes to winning the WJ McKell Cup at Rosehill on Saturday.
Waller and Lees have 11 of the 14 runners for the listed race. There will be six out to give Waller his first win in the race, while five Lees-trained stayers will be trying to achieve the same result for the Newcastle trainer.
Lees' team is led by early favourite Attention Run, a brilliant winner of her last start in a campaign that was rebooted after she failed to come up in the autumn.
As a group 3 placegetter, she is proven in stakes grade and, while Lees would have preferred to give her more than two weeks between runs, her preparation has been otherwise faultless.
"She gets track conditions to suit, she's won at the track and she will appreciate a step up in distance," Lees said. "In a perfect world I would probably have her runs a little more spaced. That's the only negative I can really find."
Sixties Groove is also well fancied and Lees regards last year's Brisbane Cup winner as a major threat. Stripping fitter for two recent runs, he excels at 2000m and had a tough run when midfield behind McKell rival Wu Gok in the Lord Mayor's Cup.
Big Duke, Frankely Awesome and Mongolian Wolf round out Lees' team.
Waller's charge is led by his Winter Cup quinella of Wu Gok and Carzoff.
Sydney's premier trainer has been dominant in the off-season staying features, producing the trifecta in the Winter and Lord Mayors Cups.