London (AFP) – Horse racing resumed in England on Monday as professional sport got under way again following the easing of coronavirus lockdown restrictions.

Elite sport in Britain has been in a deep freeze since March but the government on Saturday approved the return of domestic competitive action behind closed doors from June 1.

Premier League football is scheduled to restart on June 17, while cricket chiefs still hope to stage a full international programme during the summer.

Racing has a head start in its attempts to grab the attention of fans starved of live sport, but it looks very different from when it departed before lockdown.

At Newcastle, in northeast England, there were no spectators to watch the 10 flat races while trainers, jockeys and grooms wore masks.

Zodiakos won the first race on English soil for 76 days as the 22-1 shot edged out stablemate Al Ozzdi on the line.

“That has blown away the cobwebs,” Zodiakos’s jockey Jimmy Sullivan told Sky Sports.

“In this heat today, riding in the mask, it is very warm and after pulling up I pulled it down a little just to get a few breaths in.

“It wasn’t too bad though, it’s manageable and it’s the sort of thing that in a week you won’t even notice it.”

The 2,000 Guineas, on June 6 at Newmarket, will be the first of the flat-racing season’s “Classic” races.

Earlier in the day, pigeon racing enjoyed a brief moment in the spotlight.

More than 4,000 birds belonging to members of the Barnsley Federation of Racing Pigeons in the north of England were released from a park ahead of a 90-mile sprint.

Organiser John Greenshield, 72, said the restart came earlier than many expected and so many of the birds are far from “match fit”.

But he said the return of racing would be a blessing for many in his community and was “like putting oxygen back into the area”.

– Snooker tests –

Snooker also made a return on Monday, with reigning world champion Judd Trump recording a 3-0 win over David Grace in the opening match of the Championship League.

The televised tournament, taking place in the central English town of Milton Keynes, is the first snooker event since the Gibraltar Open in March.

Matches were held behind closed doors and players had to use hand sanitiser before the first frame, while following social distancing guidelines during the contest.

World number one Trump said: “It’s all been a bit strange to be honest. It’s brilliant to have snooker back on TV and everyone involved has done an amazing job to sort off be the first sport back.”

Trump revealed he was tested for the virus on Sunday afternoon, with players having to stay in their rooms until 1030GMT on Monday. 

“We are all on site here, not really a case of hanging out. I’ll probably go back to my room on my own and wait for my next match on my own,” Trump said.

“I like watching TV and listening to music as well as watching some of the other games.”

The coronavirus did cause some further disruption to the global sporting calendar, with the Rugby Football League and the Australian Rugby League Commission announcing the cancellation of this year’s England-Australia Ashes series.

Three Tests had been due to take place in England in October and November, with the competition being revived after a 17-year absence. 

And some expressed fears about how quickly English football’s Championship was expected to return.

Clubs in England’s second tier did not return to any sort of training until May 25 and will only begin contact training this week but the plan is to start playing matches on June 20.

“I am absolutely stunned by this announcement, as is our director of football Les Ferdinand and our manager Mark Warburton,” Queens Park Rangers CEO Lee Hoos said.