When the Cheltenham Festival took place in 2020, more than a quarter of a million people attended. This was when the global pandemic was just getting underway and was seen by many as a ‘mass spreader’ event, being one of the final major sporting events to take place in the United Kingdom. A number of people caught the virus after attending Prestbury Park, with at least one person losing their life as a result.
While the festival may have escaped significant restrictions last year by the skin of its teeth, questions are now being asked about what the event will look like in 2021, with most assuming that it will take place behind closed doors, or at least with much reduced capacity.
This year’s Cheltenham Festival is scheduled to be run between the 16th and 19th of March, with the current national lockdown not due to end until the 31st of March. ‘Elite level’ sport is allowed to take place, however, so it’s likely that the Festival will be unaffected from taking place, even if the course is empty.
Was Cheltenham In 2020 Responsible For An Initial Spread?
Back in March of 2020, it’s entirely fair to say that we had no real idea how serious Covid-19 would become. At the start of January, the World Health Organisation declared that they had attended ‘a cluster of pneumonia cases‘ in the Wuhan area of China. It was labelled as a ‘novel coronavirus’ six days later, with the first cases of it reported outside of China on the 13th of January.
At the end of the month, a Public Health Emergency of International Concern was declared, with the WHO issuing guidance on mass gatherings on the 17th of February. Whilst it still seemed to be relatively low-risk for those in the United Kingdom, the country had reported its first cases on the 29th of January. Even so, it wasn’t until the 11th of March that the World Health Organisation classified it as a pandemic.
Given that the Cheltenham Festival started on the 10th of March, was it really so outrageous that the Jockey Club didn’t cancel the meeting? It was only when high-profile attendees like Andrew Parker Bowles, comedian Lee Mack and footballer Charlier Austin reported being infected that questions about the event going ahead began to be asked of the organisation that owns Cheltenham Racecourse.
Obviously as far as the Jockey Club is concerned, they were acting in accordance with the government’s guidance at the time. Whilst the government was later criticised for not acting quickly enough, is it fair to suggest that the Jockey Club should have taken matters into its own hands and cancel an event that is worth millions of pounds to the local and British economies?
The Senior Medical Officer for the racecourse, Sue Smith, said,
“it’s simply not possible to know how and where someone who has tested positive for Covid-19 has contracted it. The standards of hand wash and hygiene at the Festival were of the highest level and all measures were taken in accordance with daily updates from Public Health England.”
The notion was, therefore, that the course did everything that it could. Just days after the 2020 Festival ended racing move behind closed doors and the Grand National was cancelled before all horse racing was then cancelled.
One of the main criticisms of the decision to allow the event to go ahead was that it is a meeting with international appeal, meaning that people from all over the world will have travelled to attend it. Around 20,000 people travelled from Ireland alone to attend the Prestbury Park event, though by April just one person was definitively identified as having caught the virus by attending the Festival.
Whilst it’s virtually impossible to identify where anyone might have caught it, it’s not outrageous to suggest that a mass gathering of a quarter of a million people would be an almost guaranteed way of spreading something known to be as infectious and deadly as this infection. So, it is with the knowledge of what happened in 2020 and the accusations that the Jockey Club faced fresh in the memory that decisions must be made about 2021.
2021 Will Be A Festival Like No Other
Whilst it looks extremely unlikely at this stage that there will be spectators in attendance at the Cheltenham Festival in 2021, even if some were allowed to watch the racing in person there is surely no question that it will be a Festival like no other. A quick look at the Jockey Club’s website shows a statement that General Sale tickets ‘are not yet available’ and that it’s ‘likely only small numbers of people will be present’.
The Jockey Club’s Regional Managing Director, Ian Renton, acknowledged that things won’t be normal for some time, saying,
“We’ve accepted that it is going to be a different festival this year to normal. Let’s see where we are by March but the team is focused on setting the stage for four world-class days of racing, which are vital to many livelihoods in the British racing industry and will hopefully be enjoyed by many millions of people on television.”
Whilst the coronavirus remains the main concern of everyone when it comes to getting spectators into Prestbury Park to watch the racing, it’s not the only logistical issue concerning race organisers. Brexit means that there are issues getting horses from the likes of Ireland and France over to the United Kingdom to take part in the various races, with Ireland in particular a regular supplier of participants.
Will Restrictions & Brexit Limit International Entries?
It’s not just the transportation of the horses that is likely to be an issue, with the stablehands and other people involved in their care and maintenance also likely to find it difficult to travel in a post-Brexit world. Add in the travel restrictions and it is a real worry for the Jockey Club that attendances will be severely reduced for the 2021 Cheltenham Festival, which obviously won’t reflect well on the sport.
Speaking on the matter, Ian Renton said,
“We’ll continue to talk to the Irish and French and the authorities over here to do everything we can to ensure that the passage for Irish and French horses is as easy as possible. People are precluded from travelling at the moment and I’m sure there will be significant issues even going into March. But I’m sure we will manage to get a number of the Irish participants coming over.”
Renton is also hopeful that at least some people may be able to attend, such as owners. That’s what happened when the racecourse held a meeting in December, with about 2,000 people attending each day. It’s no surprise that the Jockey Club would like spectators in attendance, given that events have been held predominantly behind closed doors since the summer and restrictions over the past 10 months has cost the organisation around £100 million.
The attendances in December were short-lived, with the New Year’s Day meeting returning to a behind closed doors event before then being cancelled due to a waterlogged course, caused by storms. That occurred when the government moved Gloucestershire into tier 3, having been in Tier 2 the month before. Only Haydock Park was able to have racegoers at the start of the year on account of the fact that Merseyside was still in tier 2, until the government then put the whole country into lockdown.
The Festival Is A Beacon For Jump Racing
Whilst it might seem strange that so many people are concerned about what will happen with the Cheltenham Festival, the reality is that the event is something of a beacon for the jump racing season. Though it is closer to the end of the season than the start of it, it is arguably the most important meeting that comes under the National Hunt’s jurisdiction; whether or not it goes ahead is crucial.
Equally, what format the Festival takes is just as important for jump racing. The Grand National meeting is just a few weeks after Cheltenham, with the World’s Greatest Steeplechase cancelled in 2020 because of the rising cases around the United Kingdom. It is almost as important for the sport that that goes ahead this time around as it is for the Festival to take place in some format. Already this season jump was has seen a significant increase in viewing figures.
The Festival is, therefore, something of a canary in the coal mine for jump racing. If it is given the kibosh then it’s difficult to see how other big jump racing events will be able to take place. If it happens but with restrictions, the other big meetings will be able to learn from what worked and what didn’t and then react accordingly. It’s why all of the eyes of the horse racing industry, if not sport as a whole, will firmly be on Gloucester in March.
Optimism As Entries Flood In
If the Jockey Club and jump racing in general needed a bit of positive news ahead of any major decision being made about this year’s event, they just need to have a look at the entrants for the meeting’s major races. The Gold Cup is, it’s fair to say, the most prestigious event that is run during the Cheltenham Festival, often referred to as a blue riband event and being a sort after win for jockeys, owners and trainers alike.
According to the Racing Post, as many as 41 horses have been entered into the Gold Cup for 2021, with some of the names on the list including dual winner of the race Al Boum Photo and much-fancied Santini. Al Boum Photo will be one of the favourites for the race, given he is only nine-years-old and began his season with a win in a Grade 3 race that was run at Tranmore.
When he won the race in 2020, he needed to beat out competition from Santini, eventually winning it by just a neck. They will both be up against horses such as Champ and Terrefort from Nicky Henderson’s yard, as well as Paul Nicholls’ Frodon, who won last year’s King George. Nicholls is also likely to look towards the likes of Cyrname, Master Tommytucker and Real Steel for possible winners.
Kemboy, Melon and Castlebawn West all join the aforementioned Al Boum Photo from Willie Mullins’ yard, presuming that horses from Ireland will be able to make it over in time. Irish-trained winners have won the race in four out of the last five runnings, so it will be a disappointment if they weren’t able to come. The fact that such well-respected trainers are entering horses for the Gold Cup can only be seen as a good thing, though.
They’re not alone, either. Gordon Elliott has put forward rive runners for the blue riband event, with Samcro, Presenting Percy, Battleoverdoyen, Shattered Love and Delta Work all on his list of possible winners. The 2018 winner, Native River, has been entered by Colin Tizzard, alongside his horse that finished in third place in 2020, Lostintranslation. Mister Malarkey is also likely to run for Tizzard.
Just because the horses have been entered doesn’t mean that they’re actually going to run, of course. There have been numerous cases of horses being entered into a competition only for their trainers to pull them out at the last minute; after all, that’s what makes ante-post wagers so risky. Yet the fact that they’ve been entered at all will be of relief to to Jockey Club, who might have been fearing the worst.
Trainer David Bridgwater summed up the fears of many, saying,
“I guess one of the factors that could come into the mix is whether the Irish are allowed to come over? You would have to say in the Gold Cup picture, the best form is with the Irish horses so that is something that will be interesting to see.”
There are a number of races, such as the Cotswold Chase, that will act as something of a bellwether on that front.
As the weeks progress and more and more information about races is released, we’ll obviously keep the site updated to reflect what is likely to happen. For the moment, everything remains a possibility when it comes to the Cheltenham Festival, which is proof, perhaps, that even a climate of a deadly pandemic can’t quite dampen the excitement that surround one of the world’s greatest jump racing meetings.