Two weeks ago there was the very real threat that the outbreak of the Coronavirus could result in the Cheltenham Festival being cancelled. Had the virus struck the United Kingdom two weeks earlier than it did then there’s a chance that the idea of social distancing could have led to exactly that. Instead, we managed to avoid it and jump racing’s most thrilling week went ahead as planned.
Whether that was the right decision from a medical point of view is something that we’ll only know in the coming weeks and months, but there can be no debate that it was exactly the right choice from a sporting point of view. It was a week filled with thrilling races and moments that will be talked about in years to come. Here’s a look back at a brilliant Cheltenham week.
Nothing Will Keep The Crowds Away
The fears over Covid-19 were very real, with people dying all over the world and others finding themselves in intensive care as a result of contracting the virus. Little wonder, then, that some were questioning whether people would show up to Prestbury Park for the 2020 renewal of the Cheltenham Festival. In the end, though, we needn’t have worried.
68,859 people turned up on the final day of the Festival to watch Al Boum Photo retain the Gold Cup, with in excess of 60,000 visitors on each of the other three days of the meeting. The Regional Director of the Jockey Club, Ian Renton, described it as ‘fantastic’ after some ‘challenging’ days in the build-up to one of the most important days on the National Hunt calendar.
In 2019 the overall attendance figures during Cheltenham week were 266,779, whilst the 2020 total came to 251,684. It means that numbers were down by about 14,000, but that’s an awful lot better than many thought would happen. With football, Formula 1 and other sports shutting down, Cheltenham was referred to as ‘a beacon that shines through the gloom’.
|Day||Attendance 2020||Attendance 2019||Difference|
|St. Patrick’s Day||65,218||67,821||-2,603|
|Gold Cup Day||68,859||71,816||-2,957|
Al Boum Photo Joined A Short List
Last year Willie Mullins was the talk of the Festival after finally managing to win a Gold Cup, but this year it was the horse that won it for him that took all the headlines. It is rarified air when you start looking for horses that have won the Festival’s most prestigious even more than once, but it’s a group that Al Boum Photo will forever be amongst after last week.
Golden Miller remains the race’s most successful horse thanks to five wins between 1932 and 1936, with the likes of Arkle and Best Mate also on the list of multiple winners. There have also been plenty of brilliant horses that were only able to collect the Gold Cup once during their careers. Al Boum Photo becomes just the eight horse to win it more than once.
He’s also the first horse since Best Mate in 2002, 2003 and 2004 to win the race in consecutive years. Kauto Star has won it twice since the, but that was with a gap in between. It perhaps helps Al Boum Photo’s claim to a place in racing folklore that his win was such a thrilling one, having to hold off the challenge of Santini as the finish line loomed.
Mullins Dominates Once More
There’s a reason why Willie Mullins is the most successful trainer than the Cheltenham Festival has ever seen and we’re unlikely to see his type again. Remarkably, it took until the 14th race of the meeting for the Irishman to register his first win when Ferny Hollow won the Champion Bumper, but he made up for is slow start in the closing days.
Gordon Elliott must have thought that he had the Champion Trainer title in the bag heading into the final day, with Mullins having only recorded three wins as Gold Cup Day got underway. Victories in the Triumph Hurdle, the County Hurdle and the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Chase put him right back in the mix, though, with Al Boum Photo still to race.
Back-to-back victories for Al Boum Photo handed Mullins his seventh win of the meeting, pipping Elliott to the trainer’s crown on account of the fact that he’d had more placed horses to his name. Elliott only had 19 runners but still got 7 winners, 4 second placers, a third place and to fourths. Even so, the County Meath man will surely take losing out to the brilliant Mullins in good grace.
The Irish Ruled Prestbury Park
The battle between the English and the Irish is always a fascinating one when the Cheltenham Festival comes around. Ever since Cottage Rake won the Gold Cup in the 1940s there has been a healthy rivalry between the English and their cousins from the Emerald Isle. Many though the home nation would reclaim its crown this year, but it just wasn’t to be.
It was close until the final day, with English horses having registered 10 wins compared to the Irish’s 11. A lot was riding on how well Gold Cup Day would go for both nations, but it ended up being a whitewash for the Irish. Only one race on the day didn’t have an Irish winner, with the other six seeing Irish eyes smiling as the saw the Cup return to Ireland.
The work of Mullins was an obvious help, with 7 winners never likely to be looked down upon. The man who lost out to him in the Top Trainer stakes, Gordon Elliott, added 7 winners of his own. 14 of the 17 Irish-trained winners therefore came from the two trainers, but it was enough to see them claim victory. There were 54 Irish owners at the Festival, including J.P. MacManus.
It was just as close a battle for the Top Jockey prize as it was for the trainers, with Paul Townend and Barry Geraghty both racking up 5 wins apiece. It was Townend who pipped his fellow Irishman to the post thanks to two second place wins. It meant that he received the inaugural Rugby Walsh Trophy, having taken over from Walsh as Mullins’ go-to jockey.
Celebrities Turned Out In Force
The Cheltenham Festival is a meeting that often sees its fair share of celebrities and the 2020 renewal was no exception. As usual, Zara Tindall and her husband Mike Tindall were both present for all four days, which isn’t a huge surprise considering they live so local and are both horse people. Emilia Fox, the actor, arrived on Day Three.
The Festival had a Royal feeling, not just because of Zara Tindall but also the presence of Princess Anne and the Duchess of Cornwall on Ladies Day. Members of the England rugby team turned up on the Festival’s opening day, whilst Harry Redknapp, who owns horses, also seen around the place. Lilly Allen was present.
Laura Whitmore was on DJ duties in the evening, whilst Ben Miller and Alexander Armstrong were both there to watch the races during the meeting. The Irish model and media personality Vogue Williams managed to catch some races, as did Nick Knowles. Love Island fans will have recognised Chris Hughes and those that know their silly-mid-offs will have known Johnny Bairstow.
Course Safety Has Improved
Perhaps the best news of the week came in the form of the fact that only one horse lost its life this year. Any horse having to be put down is a tragedy, of course, but Cheltenham Racecourse has worked hard over the past couple of years to ensure that it has limited the danger to the horses and jockeys that take part in races at Prestbury Park.
That work appears to have paid off, with only Copper Gone West dying this time out. The 7-year-old mare was running in the Pertemps Network Final Handicap Hurdle when she was pulled up. As per protocol, she received immediate medical attention, but nothing could be done for her. Unsurprisingly, the League Against Cruel Sports were quick to issue a statement.
The Director Of Campaigns, Chris Luffingham, said,
“This death shows starkly why the League has repeatedly called for tighter safety measures and the formation of an independent regulatory body with horse welfare at its heart. A total of 68 horses have lost their lives at the Festival since 2000 which is simply unacceptable”.
173 horses died in 2019 alone, according to BHA figures.
The Director of PETA, Elisa Allen, went one step further than the League Against Cruel Sports, saying:
“When you consider that three horse died at the Cheltenham Festival last year, the death of Copper Gone West today wasn’t only tragic – it was predictable”.
PETA called on the abandonment of the Festival, believing that the British Horseracing Authority’s review of the racecourse didn’t go far enough.
The Battle With The Bookies
The other thing that the Cheltenham Festival offers is a chance for punters to take the fight to the bookmakers. Things didn’t get off to a great start for the bookies when Epatante won the Champion Hurdle, given them a bloody nose on Day One of the meeting. Bet365 got lucky when Fakir D’oudairies failed to win the Arkle Challenge Trophy Novices’ Chase.
Had he done so then James Pritchard, a plumber from County Down, would have won £195,000 thanks to a 20p Super Heinz he placed that was just one horse away from winning. The £24 bet by the ‘once a year’ bettor saw wins from Shishkin, The Conditional, Epatante, Honeysuckle and Imperial Aura, but Fakir D’oudairies let him down.
Bet365 offered him a Cash Out before the final race, in which he had Ravenhill to race. He took £3,000 but let the rest of it ride, initially panicking when Ravenhill started at the back. Eventually he won, however, meaning that Pritchard’s £24 Super Heinz that he picked on the basis of the names of horses resulted in him winning £22,597.40.