Organizers fear loosing Cheltenham Festival more than a coronavirus outbreak

Photo © Jeff Griffith

Perhaps it sounds somewhat morbid, but among Cheltenham Festival betting offers bookmakers are already slashing odds on the four-day meeting being cancelled. Because of coronavirus fears, quite obviously. Punters are being offered either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ as to whether the Festival will go ahead on March 9th. A fortnight before the event is due to start, trainers are close to freaking out.

Nigel Twiston-Davies, for example, says he is “terrified” by the risk of the Festival being abandoned. The Gold Cup-winning trainer said that the situation reminds him of April 2001, when the Festival was cancelled because the racecourse fell within a foot-and-mouth disease exclusion zone. A farm five miles from Prestbury Park had been found to be infected, but even worse, sheep belonging to a local farmer had been grazing of the racecourse. That was regarded as high risk, and the highlight of the jump racing season fell victim to strict safety rules. Now Twiston-Davies is wondering what is going to happen if any inhabitant of Cheltenham is found to carry the coronavirus.

His colleague and former assistant Fergal O’Brien is more optimistic and dismisses the whole matter as “a storm in a tea cup”. The Jockey Club’s manager, Ian Renton, puts his hopes on the close cooperation between the government and the racing industry. He reminded the press at a media event that this is not the first time that some unexpected event troubles the waters, as the equine flu did in 2019 and the “Beast from the East” cold wave in 2018.

The Jockey Club, as the owner of the racecourse, is in for a severe blow should the event really be called off. In 2001 the festival cancellation disappointed some 200,000 spectators expected in Prestbury Park and entailed a loss worth £10m for the local economy. Hotels were trying to recoup heavy losses by withholding racegoers’ deposits. Add to this the loss of an estimated £100m for the betting industry. 

Now bookmakers appear to be siding with the pessimists in this new outbreak drama, that is looming dark above Cheltenham with the added weight of the threat to humans this time. The odds shortened from 3-1 to 5-2 in favour of no racing at Cheltenham on 10 March, based on punters’ assessments. The racing industry on the other hand is playing it cool. They set up a steering group with representatives from the British Horceracing Authority, racecourses and horsemen, and met on Feb. 26 to assess the coronavirus situation.

The decision was to make no contingency plans as yet. The mood is not to abandon any specific fixtures because of coronavirus for the time being. That could prove complicated because of the tight schedule of a busy race season. Aintree’s Grand National is coming up, only three weeks later and Punchestown at the end of April. More or less the same horses are involved and this would represent a major difficulty if Cheltenham festival had to be postponed.

What the steering group plans to do therefore is to “continue to liaise with government and monitor the implications of coronavirus. Further information or guidance will be issued to the industry as and when appropriate.”