While casuals and Grand National fanatics might try to argue otherwise, the Cheltenham Festival is the jewel in the crown of British and Irish horse racing.
It’s an important four days in the calendar for the betting industry too, with tens of millions wagered across the Festival – a slice of which then gets pumped back into the sport in a mutually-agreeable relationship.
The elephant in the room isn’t an elephant at all, but a really rather annoying virus named Covid-19. That, plus the ongoing spectre of Brexit, could put the March meeting in some jeopardy.
But fear not, because for now at least the signs are that the show will go on as planned.
Will the Cheltenham Festival Be Cancelled Because of Covid?
The truth is that with the picture changing on a daily basis, nobody has the foggiest as to whether the Cheltenham Festival will go ahead as planned in 2021.
However, and here is the salient piece of information, racing is continuing behind closed doors even amidst the national lockdown, and so that is a positive indicator that the action will get underway on Tuesday March 16 as planned.
If the government’s planned vaccination programme goes to schedule, there may even be a lifting of the national lockdown before that start of the Festival – however, as has become the norm we shall have to wait and see on that.
Will the Cheltenham Festival Be Cancelled Because of Brexit?
As the ink dries on Boris Johnson’s EU withdrawal agreement, the horse racing industry is holding its breath as to what that will mean for the sport.
The likelihood? Very little difference, in truth. Yes, the cost of crossing borders might go up, and that could play a part in the regularity with which smaller yards and owners travel to/from Ireland to the UK.
But for major players like Willie Mullins, Gordon Elliott and co, who have dominated the Festival in recent times, you suspect the show will go on without restriction.
The gaffer behind the Festival, Ian Renton, is certainly hopeful that overseas horses will continue to be declared. “We’ll continue to talk to the Irish and French and the authorities over here to do everything we can to ensure that the passage for Irish and French horses is as easy as possible,” he said.
Will There be Crowds at the Cheltenham Festival?
Now this could be a sticking point. We are barely eight weeks away from the Festival and, as you know, the UK is currently engaged in a lockdown across England, Scotland and Wales.
Assuming that vaccinations are rolled out as planned, it’s not inconceivable that Boris Johnson will unlock England and return to the tiers system by March – depending on which tier Cheltenham finds itself in, that could mean either 2,000 (as was the case just prior to Christmas) or 4,000 spectators are allowed on the premises for each of the four days. Alternatively, no punters may be allowed whatsoever.
Renton is pessimistic about the possibility of a large-scale spectator presence. “We’ve been pretty realistic with our expectations over the last few months, but as we get closer to the Festival those small bits of hope are fast disappearing,” he admitted.
“We will soon have to be wholly realistic and accept that at the very best very small numbers will be present.”
Will Al Boum Photo Win the Cheltenham Gold Cup?
Now there’s the million dollar question – or should that be the £350,000 question, as that’s what the winner of the Gold Cup banks.
To win the Gold Cup, Al Boum Photo would actually create his own slice of history – only four other horses have claimed a hat-trick of consecutive wins in the race: Golden Miller, who won an unprecedented five Gold Cups in a row between 1932-66; Cottage Rake, who won three on the spin between 1948-50; the incomparable Arkle (1964-66) and the almighty Best Mate, who dominated at Cheltenham between 2002 and 2004.
The good news is that Willie Mullins has confirmed that the nine-year-old will compete in the Gold Cup, assuming all is well, and he will start as the ante-post favourite with the bookmakers.
Mind you, he won’t be short of classy competition. The early Gold Cup declarations have been revealed, and the list includes includes last year’s second and third in Santini and Lostintranslation, Kemboy, Melon, Samcro, Presenting Percy, Champ, Frodon, Cyrname and Native River to name just few.
Not all will start of course, but phew: what a race the Gold Cup 2021 could be!