It was accepted before the resumption of horse racing on June 1st in Britain that things would be very different this year.
The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns decimated the early-season flat schedule and concertinaed meetings scheduled between May and July. Those set for earlier were cancelled.
Jumps racing was hit too. Cheltenham were criticised for going ahead with the Festival while Aintree was abandoned completely in April.
It hasn’t all been bad news of course. Horse racing bookies have seen horse racing become a top pick item with other sports being frozen or cancelled.
Here’s how British horse racing’s main events have looked in a very strange 2020 so far.
Flat racing’s marquee meeting went ahead in its normal slot, beginning on June 16th only two weeks after racing had restarted.
All-in-all it was a huge success despite the strange atmosphere, the meeting was behind closed doors of course, with top sprinter Battaash the king of day one having finally landed the Group 1 King’s Stand Stakes.
A star-studded Prince of Wales’s Stakes was taken down by Lord North on day two for the brilliant John Gosden, while that man was at it again on Gold Cup day as the world’s top stayer Stradivarius won the big race in brilliant fashion under Frankie Dettori.
Subsequent Irish Derby winner Santiago put in a big performance in the Queen’s Vase, while Royal Ascot’s final day will be remembered for brilliant Group 1 performances by three-year-olds Alpine Star and Palace Pier.
It may have been an Ascot without crowds, but it was a highly successful one nonetheless.
The Grand National
After Cheltenham managed to sneak through the cracks, the Grand National Festival at Aintree in April was the first major event to be cancelled. No new date could be found and so 2020 goes down as only the second National since the War to produce no race or no result.
In the race’s absence, a Virtual Grand National was produced and played on live TV, with punters able to bet. Bookmakers took the opportunity to hand over profits from the race to NHS charities which certainly won them a bit of favour.
The Derby Festival at Epsom usually takes place over Friday and Saturday in early June, but for the first time took place after Royal Ascot and a month after its intended date.
The meeting was compressed into one day with both the Oaks and Derby being run on the same card, impressive 1000 Guineas winner Love looking even better in landing her second fillies’ classic for Aidan O’Brien, but the Tipperary man’s success didn’t stop there.
In what was admittedly an unsatisfactory Derby for so many reasons; no crowd, no Queen and no hope for the jockeys who let the winner slip away, it was in the end a big win for Serpentine at 25/1 for the O’Brien yard.
Ultimately the Derby lost its charm without the usual 100,000 crowd cheering the field around Tattenham Corner, but needs must in these strange times.
The Cheltenham Festival
On the track, things went without a hitch at Cheltenham in March but there were rumblings in the press that some were not comfortable being there. Journalists left, many were concerned but the four-day meeting went ahead anyway with 250,000 in attendance.
All things considered Cheltenham was treated unfairly in the media for being the event that spread coronavirus. One must consider that 50,000+ were in attendance at football matches at Anfield and Ibrox, millions were using the Tube system and thousands more were sitting in close quarters inside the theatres of London’s West End every day.
While going ahead with the Festival definitely contributed to the spread of the virus in some way, organisers simply followed government advice while it became clear immediately after that major events were under risk something that came true when football, horse racing and other sports were halted for months.
It is hoped, and expected, that the Cheltenham Festival will be back all guns blazing in 2021!