In 1990, 147,000 racegoers were at Cheltenham over the course of what was then a three-day National Hunt Festival meeting. This week, despite the shadow cast by the coronavirus and much uncertainty in recent days over whether it would happen at all, the attendance over four days should reach 250,000 or more, as it has for the past three years, and there will be huge relief mixed with the jubilation as the grandstand greets the start of the Supreme Novice Hurdle with its traditional, blood-curdling roar.
For those with no interest in the sport of kings, it is just another race meeting. For devotees of jumping, it is Christmas for grown-ups, the fixture in the calendar that is anticipated like no other, and a large part of its appeal is that the more it grows and changes, the more it stays the same. Despite the huge increase in attendance and the many thousands of city-dwellers who will cram onto trains at Paddington this week, Cheltenham remains a celebration of jump racing and its country roots.
The faces change, of course, on both sides of the running rail, but the core audience for the Festival is still essentially the same, and many at the course on Tuesday will remember the bitter disappointment of losing the Festival to foot-and-mouth in 2001. For weeks now, the approach of Covid‑19 has threatened a similar outcome. The first case in Cheltenham itself was confirmed on Monday. With the government still satisfied that sporting events should continue, however, it is time to hold tight and fire the annual rollercoaster into motion.
The themes are timeless: Britain versus Ireland, old warriors versus young pretenders, proven champions versus maybes and wannabes. And amid the flashy new-money owners like Michael O’Leary and Rich Ricci, there is still room for someone like Andrew Gemmell, whose Paisley Park could be the shortest-priced favourite of the week when he returns to defend his title in Thursday’s Stayers’ Hurdle.
After the damning headlines that have swirled around Sheikh Mohammed, the Flat’s leading owner, in recent days, the memory of Paisley Park’s victory last year feels like something of an antidote. The Sheikh, oddly enough, had a winner at that long-ago Festival in 1990, when Kribensis took the Champion Hurdle. That, though, feels like a lifetime ago, and the possible fallout for Flat racing of his current travails will be as far from the racegoers’ minds this week as Doncaster is from Dubai.
They will be more interested in finding out whether Rachael Blackmore can become the first female winner of the trophy for the week’s leading rider, and hopefully transfixed as Altior, Chacun Pour Soi and Defi Du Seuil duel for the Champion Chase on Wednesday, though Altior’s participation remains in the balance. Tiger Roll, the dual Grand National winner, will be in town for the Cross Country Chase the same day, while Frodon and Bryony Frost also return for Ryanair on Thursday.
Add in one of the most open Gold Cups for years on Friday and the potential for some huge swings in fortune between punters and bookies is obvious, and nor is it entirely certain who the grandees and executives in the corporate boxes will be rooting for. If Sheikh Mohammed’s money is hugely important on the Flat, then the income generated from betting at the Cheltenham Festival is just as significant, both to jumping and, increasingly, racing as a whole.
As recently as 2013 the top 40 races of the year by turnover at Ladbrokes included 15 of the Festival’s 28 contests. Last year, it was up to 25, and there is little sign that the trend has peaked. While the Grand National at Aintree in April remains the biggest single betting race of the year, the combined might of Cheltenham’s four days far outweighs Aintree’s main event in terms of its significance for racing’s finances.
Why? Because racing gets a slice of bookmakers’ profits, not their turnover, and a run of winning favourites can put a seven-figure dent in the sport’s income. In January last year, racing was on course to make £89m from its levy on betting profits by the end of March. The eventual figure was £78m, and around half of the £11m hole was thought to result from of a golden eight-race run for the punters on the second and third afternoons when seven favourites and a second-favourite – including Altior, Paisley Park and Frodon – did the business.
An even sprinkling of winning favourites over the four days keeps turnover ticking over and interest kindled. An unbroken sequence, though, can pulverise the books, as winnings are played up and nothing returns to the satchels by the end of the day. Instead, it finds its way into the local economy as part of the Festival’s £100m footprint, as racegoers celebrate winners, drown sorrows and cram a year’s worth of fevered anticipation into just four days.
All this seemed at risk last week as the creeping shadow of coronavirus prompted fears that sporting events could be cancelled or at least staged behind closed doors. And while the Cheltenham Festival has survived, there is no way to know how the coming weeks will unfold. The Grand National in three weeks’ time, when Tiger Roll is due to go for an unprecedented third consecutive victory, is far from certain to go ahead as planned.
But that, like so much else for racing fans in Cheltenham Festival week, is for another day. Will the coronavirus be on the minds of racegoers? Of course. Will it affect the attendance? Perhaps. But will it be allowed to get in the way? No chance at all.