It’s fair to say that the 2021 Cheltenham Festival will be far from normal. There will be a distinct hollowness to proceedings in terms of atmosphere, with the familiar ‘Cheltenham Roar’ a mere memory to be conjured as we watch the action unfold on our TV screens at home.
There will be no clamour for tickets and a chance to see horse racing’s biggest stars in action, but rather the only available seat will be your sofa or favourite armchair.
It’s strange to think that it’s been almost a year since the last Cheltenham Festival, which was ostensibly the last major spectator sporting event to be held in the UK. Yes, the coronavirus pandemic has taken its toll on the sporting world, and although for a brief period in the autumn fans were allowed back into sports stadiums, the spread of new more infectious variants of the virus have ensured that we are confined to our living rooms as far as watching live sport is concerned.
The Cheltenham Festival is one of the country’s greatest spectator events — one of those sporting occasions where the occasion itself transcends the sporting action that actually plays out. For those who see Cheltenham as a great day out and a chance to socialise and discuss the Cheltenham races odds, they will cope with the fact that this year’s Festival looks set to be held behind closed doors. But it is the sport’s hardcore fanbase that will suffer most from not being able to attend the Prestbury Park meeting.
All is not lost, of course. While the Festival will be robbed of its spectator presence and vibrant atmosphere for this year, there is still a sense in which we must be thankful that it is taking place at all. Governing bodies, not just in horse racing but across all elite sport, have worked wonders to implement protocols to ensure that events can be run safely for those taking part. When you think about it, it’s a real blessing that we will be able to tune in for four days of world class racing action.
There is plenty to play for, and you can bet that none of the owners, trainers or jockeys involved will be treating the upcoming Cheltenham Festival as a diminished event. The prizes on offer are among the most prestigious the horse racing calendar can boast, and all efforts will be geared towards success at Cheltenham, whether it’s the Champion Hurdle, Queen Mother Champion Chase, or the coveted Gold Cup. If the Cheltenham tips are anything to go by, we’re in for a cracking four days.
Many point to last year’s Cheltenham Festival as a mistake, in terms of the fact that mass gathering should, in hindsight, have been stopped well before the meeting took place. But there is still a strong yearning among sports fans to return to those kinds of scenes.
Hopefully, things will be completely different in 12 months’ time, and we’ll be back to the kind of packed-house Cheltenham we all know and love. For now, the stands may be empty, and the echoes of voices shouting and hooves thundering over soft turf will ring out around a sports venue that will never have looked larger or more cavernous.
But although the surroundings will be different this year, the heart-stopping action that defines this historic sporting occasion will not be dimmed.