|Saturday 23rd January 2021|
Cheltenham Festival 2021: the Sweet Pangs of Suspense
The Jockey Club is optimistic that those four days in March will be glorious, no matter what. From Tuesday, March 16th to Friday March 19th, the Cheltenham Festival 2021 is on. As one of the most beloved horseracing events of the season, the Festival attracts at least 250,000 spectators every year. Now, the question mark is precisely on these numbers: shall we see a return of the mass audiences, or restrictions will still apply, two months from now? Be sure to check in frequently on cheltenhamguides.com to stay abreast of all the latest news if you plan to attend or be in any way part of the event.
In 2020, the Cheltenham Festival made it just in time before the lockdown. Overall attendance did drop by some 15.000, with a 251,684 strong audience, compared to the 2019 record of 266,557. That was the year when the Racing Post voted the Cheltenham racecourse as the best in the world. The venue is beautiful, and the Festival is a historic event dating back to 1861, one of the finest occasions to enjoy jumps racing at its best. The final day is the culmination of all emotions, with the Gold Cup taking centre stage. Overall, 28 races are organized during the four days of the Festival, with some prestigious special ones like the Queen Mother Champion Chase.
In 2020, spectators could enjoy Al Boum Photo's victory in the Golden Cup as a sort of glorious farewell before the gloomy lockdown season. That was the first time a horse won this signature race in consecutive years after Best Mate's exploit in 2002, 2003, and 2004. Al Boum Photo's trainer, Willie Mullins, celebrated his horses' additional victories in the Triumph Hurdle, the County Hurdle, and Albert Bartlett Novices' Chase.
As for the 2021 edition, two questions are troubling anxious fans. How will the new lockdown legislation (in place until March 31st) impact the Festival? Will Irish horses be able to attend? The most realistic hypothesis so far is that Cheltenham will have to make do with reduced audiences this time. "At the very least I would hope that we can have owners present and hopefully getting back to the days of December where we had a crowd totalling 2000 people on each of those days," racecourse boss Ian Renton had declared in the first days of January. After heavy criticism caused by the 2020 choice to go for full crowds (about 70.000 per day), the management has become much more realistic.
The attendance of Irish horses could face a double dose of complications, both from Brexit and travel restrictions. The percentage of Irish runners in the last two editions of the Cheltenham Festival was exceptionally high: as many as 38 percent. More specifically, a total of 180 horses from Ireland competed in 2020 and 187 in 2019. Now those numbers could drop dramatically if post-Brexit travel issues combine with epidemiologic restrictions. Fans are keeping their fingers crossed in the hope that logistic solutions are found in the next few weeks.