Cheltenham’s regional director Ian Renton admits preparations for this year’s Festival have been like no other – but he hopes attention can now switch to action on the track.
Twelve months ago, almost 70,000 were at Cheltenham to watch Al Boum Photo secure back-to-back Gold Cups.
Few could have imagined then the year which lay ahead, with large gatherings banned almost immediately after the Festival.
When racing returned in June following a near three-month hiatus it was without crowds – and barring a handful of occasions, it has remained that way – but of all courses, the one that will feel the absence of a crowd most is surely Cheltenham.
“We’re looking forward to what will be a very different Festival,” said Renton.
“Obviously it is the first time it has been behind closed doors, so the build-up has been extremely different to usual.
“It’s been an interesting build-up, concentrating on the racing rather than on those who would normally be coming here, but we’ve also been looking at what we can do for them at home.
“This is one of the highlights of the sporting season, the four best days’ jumping you will ever see. Yes, there won’t be the same atmosphere on course but we can all look positively to what’s ahead of us.
“We’ve got some superlative racing to look forward to with Al Boum Photo looking to join the likes of Arkle, Cottage Rake and Best Mate. When you think two years ago Willie Mullins had never won the race to now be going for three in a row it’s quite incredible.
“It’s always great to see the champions return – and all five will this year – but to show how competitive it is only Al Boum Photo is favourite.
“We’re really delighted to be partnering with WellChild, too, a charity who look after seriously ill children and have their headquarters in Cheltenham.”
Of course, no crowds at the Festival and barely any income for a year has hit hard financially – and while there is an insurance policy which covers some of the damage, there is still a large shortfall.
“Thankfully we’ve had a three-year insurance policy which remains in place and which has been extremely beneficial to us and Jockey Club Racecourses,” said Renton.
“The cover is limited to losses directly attributed to the Festival – but other areas, such as annual members and box holders, we suffer all those losses as well as all the other activities which haven’t taken place.
“The Jockey Club lost £90million in revenue in 2020, and this year we continue to count the cost of the pandemic with virtually all our revenue streams stopped completely or significantly reduced.”
Not only have Cheltenham officials had to cope with the financial strain, there have been many stories in the past 12 months related to the pandemic which have mentioned last year’s Festival and the crowds in attendance.
Coupled with the recent Gordon Elliott headlines, after a picture was shared on social media of him sitting on a dead horse, racing has some ground to make up in the public’s perception.
The British Horseracing Authority’s chief medical adviser Dr Jerry Hill said: “I’ve spent a lot of time learning over the last 12 months – learning about our industry, relationships, resilience – and I’ve learned a hell of a lot about Covid as well, which was knowledge we didn’t have a year ago.
“The elephant in the room is last year’s Festival. Would we have done something different with a different set of knowledge? And of course history teaches us different things. The situation we are in now, we know so much more about the disease and how best to control it, how to continue functioning as a society.
“We have learned a great deal. A year ago we were at the beginning of the learning curve and seeking information, like everyone else. The information has gradually become available. At the time we sought information from experts and followed their advice.”
Renton hopes that, with the vaccine rollout and infection rates dropping, the Festival may be seen as a springboard to better times.
“The mood, hopefully, within the nation is beginning to look forward to the country opening up again and all the positives that can bring,” he said.
“At the Festival, we tend to be the harbinger of spring and the beginning of things opening up for the summer, and I think we can be that again.
“All the negatives that have been referred to, I’d love to think we can park those, put them behind us and look forward to four fantastic days. Look at the 28 races – I don’t think anyone can fail to be excited by them.”