Even by the ordinary standards of sport, horse racing is an escapist place to spend your time. The Cheltenham Festival is its busiest, most hedonistic week and you can disappear into the fun of it and forget about harsh realities like global pandemics, which seemed to be one of the main attractions for the 68,859 who came here on Friday, oblivious to the disapproving noises made by everyone else on social media.
“Someone told me it was like being in a bubble,” said Ian Renton, who manages the racecourse for its owners, the Jockey Club. “That’s a good description, having been here all week and not had time to take in much that’s happened outside the bubble.”
Those outside were, in some cases, agog at the idea that so many could be allowed to gather in one place at a time when everyone is so concerned about slowing the spread of a vicious infection. Barney Ronay, the Guardian’s chief sports writer, spoke for many when he tweeted on Friday morning: “Fuck me the Cheltenham Festival’s still going on!”
“It is a slightly surreal experience,” Renton conceded. “One knows, once this week is over, the country is in a strange place. But everyone’s having an enjoyable time, nothing has changed for the participants. It feels like business as normal. People are being very sensible with the precautions.”
Those precautions included banks of bottles containing hand sanitiser gel placed around the venue and use was being made of them, including by Aidan Byrnes of County Meath, a man past retirement age.
“I’ve been coming here for years and years,” he said. “This wasn’t really about to put me off. You just hope for the best, that you’re not about to pick up the virus. The sanitisers are a good idea. But there’s so many people around, you’re bound to be at risk.”
Renton confirmed the sanitisers were seeing plenty of action, judging by how often his staff were having to replace the bottles. “The use of hot water in certain areas is two or three times its normal use. So people are listening, heeding the advice.”
For some, heeding the advice meant staying away, since Gold Cup day was, most unusually, not sold out. But most of the fanatics evidently decided to brave it because the final crowd figure was less than 3,000 below last year’s, which was a record.
Among those who stayed away were the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, who had accepted an invitation but then had to cry off to deal with more pressing matters. But a government that was content to allow such gatherings to continue was represented by the Defra minister, Victoria Prentis, who was shown how racehorses are cared for in the stables. Prentis was here as a guest of a constituent, the trainer Paul Webber, and was caught up in the celebrations when his Indefatigable won the final race by about an inch at 25-1.
Over by the paddock, sympathy for the government’s predicament was expressed by the trainer Dr Richard Newland, who is especially well placed to comment on the crisis, as he also runs a healthcare business. “They’re damned if they do and they’re damned if they don’t,” he said. “They feel they need to do something and then if one sporting event’s off, people feel they’ve all got to be off.”
Newland’s concerns, apart from supervising his runners here, included whipping up 250 laptops from somewhere so that staff of his healthcare business could start a new regime of working from home on Monday. He was especially keen that racing should continue, behind closed doors if necessary, as is now happening in Ireland, but should not suspend action on the track.
“If we could believe it was going to be three weeks, the shutdown, then fine. But to me it feels like the shutdown would be more like four months,” he said.
In front of the stands, waiting for the next race, Tally Rigg and her friend Sarah Eastman, twentysomethings from Bristol, were fully immersed in racing’s bubble. “In general the Brits are fairly careless about this sort of thing,” Rigg said.
“I’m not too worried about it. I’ve brought my hand wipes. As long as you wash your hands and you’re not too huggy and kissy with everyone, you’re good to go. Nothing’s going to stop us having a drink and celebrating.”
Her friend had picked four winners and bought a new pair of boots.
A more sober assessment came from the bookmaker Andy Geraghty, who reported business was down on usual levels by between 10% and 20%. “I don’t know whether it’s right or it’s wrong but I want it to be on, for the sake of my business,” he said.
“People are on the breadline as it is, so they need to be able to work. Hopefully we’ll be at Aintree next month. We can get the wages for the whole year at this meeting. Currently, we’re not, the plan isn’t going so well, but you never know.”