Racing tends to live in its own little world at the best of times – for many of its fans, that is part of the attraction – but the sense of deliberate detachment can never have felt so strong as it will when a dozen horses head to post on Friday afternoon for the 92nd running of the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
In the space of a couple of hours on Thursday morning, in the wider world outside the Prestbury Park bubble, Spain suspended its football league for two weeks, a McLaren team member tested positive for Covid-19 leading to an escalating situation around the Australian Grand Prix, and Leo Varadkar, the Irish prime minister, announced the closure of all schools, colleges and childcare facilities in Ireland until 29 March and a ban on outdoor gatherings of more than 500 people.
Ireland supplies seven of the runners in Friday’s big-race field and 59 of the likely starters on the day as a whole. Every horse has two or three staff to accompany it, who will return to a country on lockdown on Friday evening. Yet as all this was happening elsewhere, the enclosures were filling with around 65,000 racegoers, many of whom will be back again on Friday on their annual pilgrimage to watch steeplechasing’s championship event. Some, no doubt, will have second thoughts, and last year’s record attendance of 71,849 is unlikely to come under threat. But for as long as the government holds off from following Ireland’s example and allows large-scale gatherings to continue, most ticket-holders will find the pull of the Gold Cup impossible to ignore.
The reason why is difficult to explain to anyone who does not follow jumps racing, but with the possible exception of the Grand National, no race all year sends a collective thrill of nervous anticipation through the stands like the Cheltenham Gold Cup. The National, to a large extent, is won by the luckiest horse in the race. The Gold Cup is won by the best, but each fence promises a new twist in the tale before its identity is finally revealed.
There will also, inevitably, be a fin de siècle feeling about this year’s race. Big racing events, and big sporting events in general for that matter, are unlikely to look or sound like this for weeks, possibly months, to come. Few here would risk much money on the Grand National going ahead in three weeks’ time, never mind with its usual complement of 65,000 racegoers in attendance. And even if it does, will the Irish and their horses – including the history-seeking Tiger Roll – want or even be allowed to travel across for it?
The surreal – like a Grand National without a crowd to roar the winner home – could well become commonplace in the weeks to come. There should be no shortage of volume as the leaders turn for home on Friday, though, as the latest iteration of jumping’s most prestigious race is as open as any for years. Half of the 12-strong field were at a single-figure prices on Thursday evening, and only two can be ruled out with any confidence.
It is also a race that pitches all of the powerhouse stables against one another, again quite conceivably for the last time this season given the questions marks over Aintree and possibly Punchestown in April too. Willie Mullins, Nicky Henderson, Gordon Elliott, Colin Tizzard and Paul Nicholls all field big contenders, with Nicholls, via Clan Des Obeaux, aiming to move alongside Tom Dreaper with a record-equalling fifth success in the race.
Henry de Bromhead, who has had two winners here already this week, saddles two fancied outsiders, including Monalee, the mount of his stable jockey, Rachael Blackmore. Her week has yielded only a single winner so far, but she steered Monalee to within a neck of Elliott’s Delta Work, one of the big-race favourites, last time out and is no forlorn hope to become the first female rider to win the Festival’s most famous race.
Reality will finally start to prick the racing bubble as the crowds disperse on Friday evening, and many punters will expect to be watching the action on the small screen for the next few weeks – if, that is, there is racing to watch at all. But they should, as ever, carry the memory of a pulsating Gold Cup with them.