Racing returns to Cheltenham on Friday for the first time since the Festival meeting in March.
Exactly 32 weeks since an official crowd of 68,859 witnessed the Willie Mullins-trained Al Boum Photo successfully defend his crown in the Gold Cup, the scene at Prestbury Park will be altogether different.
The coronavirus pandemic was still very much in its infancy when the Festival began on March 10. Extra hygiene measures – including banks of hand sanitiser dispensers – were installed, and 251,684 people attended across the four days, although many of those were repeat visitors.
It was clear by midweek a change of approach from Government was imminent – and while the Festival did go ahead in its entirety, within a matter of days the sport was shut down completely until racing resumed behind closed doors on June 1.
Cheltenham received plenty of criticism in the weeks that followed the Festival, with images of the packed grandstands in the Cotswolds beamed around the world amid a steep rise in positive cases and deaths.
While a couple of crowd pilot events elsewhere in recent months raised brief hope that racegoers would be able to return to Cheltenham by the time this weekend’s Showcase Meeting came around, restrictions are being tightened once more – and just some owners and essential workers will be in attendance.
Simon Claisse, regional head of racing and clerk of the course, points out that all the way through the Festival, Cheltenham followed advice from the Government.
“Whenever the Festival was brought up in the early stages of the pandemic we just had to remind ourselves that we followed the Government’s advice the whole way through. That was all that we could do,” said Claisse.
“We’ve been very busy since March – of course we’ve been able to familiarise ourselves with the protocols needed for racing behind closed doors at other courses.
“We’ve been working with the BHA for the last two months to make sure we are set up appropriately to maintain social distancing and making sure people can do it here.
“Until you’ve been racing on a day with no crowd, it is hard to envisage it, but we’re looking forward to welcoming some owners. We’re not sure how many, because the team are still working on that, but we’re eager to get going again – it’s been a long seven months.”
For Claisse, the condition of the track now becomes his priority with racing set to return.
He said: “We couldn’t be happier with where the ground is. Good, good to soft in places is where we are – with little bits of rain around.
“To be starting on the slow side of good for the first meeting (of the season) is just where you’d want to be.”