The Cheltenham Festival is one of the biggest meetings in jump racing, if not horse racing as a whole. In terms of the Jockey Club, there are few events that garner the sort of attention and media coverage that Cheltenham tends to bring. It is for that reason that the meeting goes ahead almost in spite of what is going on in the world, as was discovered in 2020 when hundreds of thousands of people heading to the Gloucestershire course was believed to be one of the main reasons for the spread of Covid-19 in the area. The meeting went ahead when many other sports were cancelled.
Rewind 19 years and something not dissimilar nearly happened. Whilst the coronavirus was a threat to human life, foot and mouth was deadly as far as animals were concerned, which meant that meetings like the Cheltenham Festival and the Grand National at Aintree Racecourse had to be either postponed or considered whether they should go ahead.
The initial plan was for the meeting to be delayed until April, but when the racecourse was found to be just five miles from an outbreak of the disease, there was no choice but for the Festival to be cancelled altogether in its traditional form.
What Is Foot-And-Mouth?
The previous time that foot-and-mouth had broken out in Great Britain had been in 1967, at which time it was confined to a small area in Northumberland. As a result, when the disease was confirmed to have returned in 2001 there was some confusion about what exactly it was.
In 1980, the procedure that should be followed in the event of foot-and-mouth being discovered was taken away from the British government on account of the European Community directive, which put specific requirements in place should an outbreak occur again, as it did when the disease was detected in Essex on the 19th of February 2001.
The infectious disease affects animals with cloven hooves, causing a high fever that lasts for as long as six days before blisters form in the mouth and hoof. The latter can lead to lameness, with the highly infectious nature of the disease having severe implications for farming.
It can be spread relatively easily, not only from animal to animal but also via the likes of farm equipment, clothing, feed and even domestic prey. This means that, when cases are found, there needs to be an extreme reaction in order to ensure that it doesn’t spread between various animals.
The 2001 Outbreak
The epizootic in 2001 resulted in more than six million cows and sheep being killed in response to an outbreak of foot-and-mouth, which had been a reaction to in excess of 2,000 cases. Public rights of way had to be closed, whilst any animal within three kilometres of a known case had to be culled.
Anything that might result in the spread of the disease had to stop, which the transport of horses obviously fitted into. It is widely believed that the 2001 outbreak was due to contaminated swill that was fed to pigs at a farm in Heddon-on-the-Wall, almost certainly because of meat illegally imported into the United Kingdom.
By the time that the outbreak was confirmed to be completely over in October of 2001, it was estimated that it had cost the UK £8 billion. This was because areas such as the Lake District were closed to the public, whilst the likes of the Cheltenham Festival and the British Rally Championship were cancelled. Crufts, the world famous dog show, was delayed from March until May.
It was one of the worst things to happen to farming in the United Kingdom, to say nothing of the affect that it had on other areas of the British economy that can barely be accounted for.
The Cheltenham Festival’s Cancellation
When the foot-and-mouth disease first broke out in the UK, a decision was taken to postpone the Cheltenham Festival from its usual date in March until the following month. That followed point-to-point meetings being cancelled in February as well as a meeting in Newcastle being called off owing to the fact that the course fell within a local exclusion zone.
There was some hope when big meetings at both Haydock and Kempton had been able to go-ahead without any issues. On the 26th of February, just weeks before Cheltenham should’ve begun, all point-to-point racing was cancelled.
The following day, racing in Britain was suspended for seven days, with the Irish government telling people to stay away from Cheltenham. Over the days that followed, more and more meetings were cancelled even whilst the British Horseracing Board was issuing tentative guidance on how it could be restarted. On the seventh of March, racing resumed at Lingfield but a group of sheep were found to have grazed on the course in the build-up to the start of the Festival. The sheep were later dubbed the ‘Cheltenham 23’ by the press, causing the meeting to be called off.
A decision was eventually taken to reschedule the Festival until the 17th of April, which came under threat on the 31st of March when an outbreak was confirmed just five miles from the course. When an exclusion zone then came down around the area, the meeting had to be officially abandoned on the first of April.
To make matters worse, it later emerged that the cause of the Festival’s abandonment might have been a false alarm after all. Another outbreak on a nearby farm, however, meant that racing at Cheltenham would almost certainly have been postponed regardless.
What Happened Instead
When the cancellation of the Cheltenham Festival was confirmed, the racecourse initiated an automatic refund for all tickets that had been sold, as well as to the 150,000 badge-holders. As for the horses, many were diverted to Liverpool for the meeting that was due to take place there. At the same time, the Gold Cup and three other big races from the Festival were scheduled to take place at Sandown instead.
In the end, there was no running of the Stayers’ Hurdle, whilst the Queen Mother Champion Chase at Sandown was won by Edredon Bleu. Landing Light was the horse that won the Champion Hurdle, with the races taking place during the Whitbread Gold Cup meeting.
The Cheltenham Gold Cup’s equivalent was won by Marlborough. It was at least some form of racing that punters were able to get involved with, but none of the races bore any real resemblance to the real thing that should’ve taken place at Prestbury Park but didn’t.