Action on the track lived up to expectations as racing returned to Cheltenham on Friday – but there was a very different scene and feeling at the home of jumping to the one that prevailed in March.
Gone were the roars from the crowds synonymous with sending runners on their way and greeting winners back – with the only noise to be heard in the near-empty stands being that of hooves pounding the turf and jockeys encouraging extra from their mounts.
Racing behind closed doors has been the new normal since the resumption of the sport on June 1. However, for Cheltenham it was a first taste of such an experience, having staged the Festival in front of a crowd on all four days of the showpiece meeting during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic.
Officials were keen to get things right, something Ian Renton, Jockey Club Cheltenham and South West regional director, believes was achieved.
He said: “It is an extraordinary amount of work to put on a racing-behind-closed-doors day at somewhere as large as Cheltenham. The team here have done a magnificent job. I think we will always be under a degree of scrutiny, but we want to do things as well as we can and we are operating under Government guidelines in exactly the same way we were at the Festival.
“We’ve a temporary weighing room to house 48 of the jockeys, so they can all be socially distanced, as well as the original weighing room.
“We’ve divided the owners into two restaurants, so they are all socially distanced, and there are a ridiculous amount of barriers to ensure there is two-metre distance between the green and amber zone to ensure it is the safest possible environment we can produce.”
Though the official crowd figure will be recorded as zero with no paying spectators coming through the turnstiles, around a couple of hundred owners were able to enjoy the action, which Renton feels was equally as important as racing resuming at the course.
He added: “The feedback from owners has been very positive. They are delighted to be back on a racecourse and are very happy with what we have tried to give them.
“It’s certainly something we are going to have to live with for the next couple of meetings, with an attendance nothing more than what we have now.
“I think the team have done a magnificent job in trying to create a little bit of atmosphere and ensure the owners’ experience is good and we are a Covid-safe venue in what is a new venture for us all.”
Kim Bailey has enjoyed many memorable Cheltenham moments over the years, and he praised the work put in at the course after securing the privilege of striking gold in the first race back, following the victory of Does He Know.
Bailey said: “I put my suit on this morning and it still had the Cheltenham badge from the Friday (of the Festival), so I took that off thinking we are in a new world.
“It’s great to be back here with the first winner. The racecourse has been fantastic and have looked after the owners very well. You can see from this lot a winner is a winner – everybody dreams to be standing here, even if they can’t go in the paddock.”
Champion trainer Nicky Henderson, who was on the scoresheet with Fusil Raffles, felt the service on offer for owners was exceptional.
Henderson said: “From the owners’ perspective and with no crowd at all, at least the owners can come and see their horses run. I think they have done it fantastically.
“They’ve really pushed the boat out and they’ve looked after them enormously, which we appreciate because they are the bread and butter of the game as far as we are concerned.
“It is well organised and very slick and all the owners would echo my thoughts.
“We know what the circumstances are and it is going to be bizarre. It’s still Cheltenham, with or without a crowd.”
Robbie Power enjoyed arguably his finest victory when steering Sizing John to Gold Cup glory in 2017, and he was another only too pleased to be racing following the victory of the Gordon Elliott-trained Galvin, who could easily be one of those back for a big target in the spring.
Power said: “Of course it is different, but we are just very lucky to be racing and it is very important that we do the right things to keep this great sport going.
“That is what we have got to do and hopefully somewhere in the near future, sooner rather than later, we can get the crowds back.”