It is less than a month since Cheltenham’s International meeting in December offered a brief glimpse of a brighter future for racing, as 2,000 spectators watched the action from the stands and dared to hope that they might do so again at the Festival meeting in March. A much grimmer reality has since intervened, however, and with the country now heading into its third national lockdown, it seems increasingly unlikely that even owners with runners will be able to watch their horses compete at the Festival in 10 weeks’ time.
Owners are barred from racecourses in tier 4 areas under the BHA’s anti-Covid protocols, and also banned from travelling to the handful of tracks under tier 3 rules from a home in a tier 4 area. Gloucestershire entered tier 4 on 1 January, so at the very least, a reduction in the level of local restrictions would be needed to allow some owners onto the course in March.
“We’ve been pretty realistic in our expectations over the last few months,” Ian Renton, Cheltenham’s managing director, told Nick Luck’s Daily Podcast on Monday morning, “but as we get closer to the Festival itself, one realises the small amounts of hope that we occasionally clung onto are fast disappearing and we will soon have to be wholly realistic and accept that very small numbers, at best, will be present.
“I would certainly hope that at the very least we will have owners present to be able to watch their horses run, and hopefully going back to the days of December, when we had a crowd totalling 2,000 people on each of those days. So that is the sort of expectation we’re currently looking at.”
There is, understandably, plenty of hope but very little certainty in Renton’s latest planning. And while this was always going to be a very different and difficult event to get over the line, now that a new national lockdown is in place, the focus may well be on ensuring that the meeting looks as much like a regular Festival as possible to what seems sure to be a record audience on ITV Racing.
Elite sport is, for now, at least, is an exemption from the new lockdown, and the sport’s impressive response to the first lockdown in March 2020, including Covid-safe protocols for racing behind closed doors that have been enforced and maintained to the letter for many months, may well have played a part in that. It still seems possible that Cheltenham Festival – racing’s biggest money-earner via attendance, hospitality and off-course betting, with all but a handful of its 28 races in the bookmakers’ annual top 40 according to turnover – will open on schedule on 16 March.
But every betting shop in England has now joined those in Scotland and Wales that are already closed. Online betting turnover will undoubtedly rise sharply if the latest measures remain in place until March, but there is also no certainty that this year’s meeting will have the unique competitive depth which punters find so irresistible.
At the last two Festivals, horses trained in Ireland have accounted for 38% of all runners, a total of 180 horses in 2020 and 187 in 2019. Post-Brexit travel issues for horses or Covid-related restrictions on the staff who look after them (or possibly both) could lead to a drop in the numbers making the trip.
“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,” Renton said on Monday. “People are precluded [from travelling] at the moment and I’m sure there will be significant issues even going into March that people may have to self-isolate when they return home, but I’m sure we will manage to get a number of the Irish participants coming over in March.”