In the world of British horse racing, few meetings are as popular and influential as the Cheltenham Festival. Unfortunately, in the wider world things beyond the control of race organisers can sometimes take over and have an influence over events in an unexpected manner. The question on everyone’s lips this year is whether that will be the Coronavirus.
There have been high levels of panic around the world since the outbreak of the virus from the Wuhan area of China, including a decision from the World Health Organisation to declare it as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. The question now is whether it will, as is being suggested in some quarters, cause disruption to major sporting events like the Festival.
How The Coronavirus Outbreak Affected Sport
With the risk of the Coronavirus spreading being declared as ‘very high‘, numerous events around the world are being cancelled in order to limit the number of people getting together in mass gatherings. One such set of events are the Cherry Blossom Festivals in Japan, which are immensely popular and a source of national pride.
Earlier in the month a decision was taken to postpone the men’s and women’s Six Nations matches between Ireland and Italy that were due to take place in Dublin on the 7th and 8th of March. That was because of an outbreak of the virus in 11 towns in Northern Italy, with other events also being considered for cancellation.
An Irish Rugby Football Union statement gave the cause of the postponement as being due to advice received on the issue. It said:
“The National Public Health Emergency team has determined that the series of matches should not proceed, in the interests of Public Health”.
With that being the case, it’s easy to see why other sports are fearing similar situations.
Because of the seeming ease with which the virus is transmitted between people, there is concern that mass public meetings could lead to further spread of the Coronavirus and, therefore, an increase in deaths. Skiing, skating and top-level football matches have all already been postponed, which is why there are some fears for the Cheltenham Festival.
Could The Cheltenham Festival Be Cancelled?
At this stage, there is no clear answer to the question about whether or not the Cheltenham Festival might also fall victim to the Coronavirus. With the event now just a little over a week away, racegoers are keeping their fingers crossed that it will still get to go ahead. That comes at the same time as bookmakers have been slashing odds on it taking place, however.
The good news as things currently stand is that Cheltenham Racecourse is proceeding as if everything is fine. A spokesperson said, “It remains a full speed ahead for The Festival in a fortnight’s time. Racing continues to liaise closely with government to stay on top of the situation and we are looking forward to four fantastic days of racing at Cheltenham”.
Ian Renton, who is the Regional Director For Cheltenham and the Jockey Club’s South West Division will not countenance the event taking place behind-closed-doors, even if the worst comes to the worst. He said:
“In reality we are here to stage the Festival for owners, trainers, the horses and racegoers. That is what the Festival is all about”.
Renton also pointed to the difference between the Cheltenham Festival and other events, such as in Hong Kong where they have gone ahead but without any spectators present. He said:
“You can understand in Hong Kong where there may be a very different thought when events are being run for the betting industry…the Festival needs such a crowd”.
There Have Been Disease Fears In Previous Years
This isn’t the first year that the Cheltenham Festival has felt as though it was under threat of cancellation from an outside influence. Last year there were major fears that the meeting would have to be postponed or even cancelled after an outbreak of equine flu had resulted in other race meetings not taking place in the weeks building up to it.
More than 150 stables went into lockdown in the build-up to the Festival in 2019 because of the equine flu outbreak, but in the end sufficient precautions were put in place and enough was done to convince the British Horseracing Authority that the event was safe to go ahead. There was also nothing of note that happened either during or event the event last year.
The last time that the Festival was called off because of any kind of public emergency was in 2001 when an outbreak of foot and mouth disease saw cattle around the country slaughtered and sporting events like Cheltenham and the Six Nations cancelled. It was estimated that that cost the industry around £100 million, so there will be desperation for it to go ahead this year.
What Is The Coronavirus?
The specific medical term of the virus in this instance is Covid-19, which it has been given in order to distinguish it from other forms of the Coronavirus that have appeared in the past. This version seems to have originated from people working in or with others who were working in the Huanan seafood wholesale market, with the virus passed to humans from animals.
Those of you that remember the outbreak of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, back in 2002 as well Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome will have already lived through an outbreak of the Coronavirus in a different form. As things currently stand Covid-19 is not being called a pandemic by the WHO, but could develop into one.
Can You Protect Yourself Against It?
There is currently no vaccine to this version of the Coronavirus, which can cause pneumonia like symptoms and gives victims a severe cough, fever and difficulties breathing in some people. In the most severe cases it causes organ failure and because it is a viral infection antibiotics are no use against it. The majority of people who have died from it were either old or had a poor immune system.
The best way of protecting yourself is by washing your hands with clean water and soap. Covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze will help to limit the spread of the virus, whilst face masks will offer some limited protection. Anyone who fears that they may have symptoms of the virus is recommended to seek medical attention by phone.