Imagining a Cheltenham Festival without crowds

It feels like so long since we revelled in the unparalleled excitement of the Cheltenham Festival back in March. When the crowds left after the final day’s racing on Friday March 13th, few would’ve imagined that we would then go six months, and counting, with crowds not being allowed to attend race meetings. 

But that has been the reality of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, with the return of spectators to racecourses up and down the country still likely to be a long way away. There have been various test events held, with capacities limited to as low as 474 at a recent Warwick meeting, up to a maximum of 2,500 being allowed to attend the first day of the St Leger meeting at Doncaster before health officials put an end to the crowds’ presence. 

Now, we are still faced with the prospect of only being able to watch racing on our television screens for the foreseeable future, unless you are one of the lucky few who make it to one of the aforementioned test events. It could even prove that one of the highlights of the jumps racing calendar, the Cheltenham Festival, is forced to be run behind closed doors in 2021.

It would be a strange sight to watch the Cheltenham Festival without the thousands of spectators packing the stands and lining the edge of the course. After all, the Prestbury Park meeting, held every March, is one of the best-loved spectator events in the sporting calendar, with the famous ‘Cheltenham Roar’ one of the most notorious aspects of the Festival. Every year, racing fans gather to watch the action unfold and take punts on their favourite horses on sites like Betdaq

It will be interesting to see what kind of situation unfolds regarding the Festival, if the coronavirus pandemic is still not under sufficient control to allow mass gatherings of crowds at sporting events. We could see a limited capacity introduced, but at a racecourse as large as Cheltenham, it would still feel notably empty if the crowd was capped at two or three thousand. 

That would also make it an extremely different experience for the jockeys, trainers, and all involved in participating at Cheltenham. How often do we see winning jockeys hail the impact of the crowd in spurring them on to give it absolutely everything towards the line? Can you seriously imagine a closely-fought, dramatic photo-finish played out in front of what would effectively amount to a man and his dog? That unique aspect would be lost, and as a result, the Festival would not have the same magic as other years.

But then, perhaps a sense of perspective is needed. During the nationwide lockdown, which saw no racing action taking place at all, we would’ve given anything just to have racing back, even if it was behind closed doors. Unfortunately, this is the reality as we move forward, and it may be a lot longer than we thought before we see racing truly returning as it was in the time before the coronavirus pandemic. 

The truth is, even if Cheltenham was to be held behind closed doors in 2021, it would be better than no Cheltenham Festival at all. And it will make it all the more sweet when we do get to hear that famous Cheltenham roar again, whenever that may be.