Excitement mingled with a nagging sense of déjà vu here on Friday as spectators flooded back into jump racing’s spiritual home for the first time since March 2020. Nineteen months on from a Gold Cup week that came to symbolise the foot-dragging on the road to lockdown, Covid cases are on the rise once again and the echoes were difficult to avoid.
Around 12,000 spectators were expected at Cheltenham on Friday and perhaps 16,000 for the second day of the meeting on Saturday, less than a quarter of the 68,859 who packed the grandstands and carpeted the enclosures as Al Boum Photo won the Gold Cup on 13 March 2020. The brief cheer as the tapes went back for the opening race was far removed from the famous roar that sends them on their way at the Festival.
But the all-important atmosphere was back, much to the delight of locals Lucinda and Jenny, who were taking selfies with the brooding Cleeve Hill in the background shortly before the racing got underway.
“It’s amazing to be back, absolutely amazing,” Lucinda said. “We’ve been coming for 10 years probably, we’re both horsey anyway and worked in racing yards, and we live locally so we’re lucky that it’s right on the doorstep.
“It’s the atmosphere, definitely. You can watch it on the TV but it’s not the same as being here and experiencing it.”
Waiting for the runners to parade before the first with his wife Carol, Simon Eaton was also delighted to be back at Cheltenham. “Loads,” he said with feeling, when asked how much he had missed it. “It’s just good to be back and with some normality again. We’re still a bit hesitant [due to Covid] but you just need to get on with it and make the most of it.
“We’ll try and do every meeting at Cheltenham now. We were watching on the TV during the lockdown in March and it just wasn’t the same. Without crowds, it’s nothing really.”
Eaton’s determination not to miss a meeting here from now on will be music to the ears of Cheltenham’s executives. The track is known to be the biggest revenue-earner among the 14 tracks owned by Jockey Club Racecourses, and while the group does not separate out the figures for individual courses in their annual report, a season behind closed doors at Cheltenham will account for a significant part of JCR’s estimated loss of £170m in revenue due to the pandemic.
Whether they will be open to all comers for the rest of the National Hunt season remains to be seen. The requirement for a Covid passport to attend a mass gathering, for instance, could yet be a weapon in the fight against the virus and there was little evidence on Friday that racegoers might be deterred.
“I think they [sporting venues] should all need a Covid pass to show you’ve had your vaccine,” Ian, enjoying his first ever day at Cheltenham races after moving to the area recently, said. “It’s hard luck on people who haven’t bothered to have the vaccine, but that’s their problem, not ours. I’d be quite happy to, if it was required.”
Andy Sharpe, a regular spectator at many sports, has already used a Covid pass to get into a major event.
“We come fairly often,” he said. “The last time was last March , we came twice that week actually. I didn’t think it would be on, but as it was on, we came, and we didn’t get any problems after that, fortunately.
“It’s one of my favourite sporting venues, it’s the best venue there is for National Hunt racing and with the crowds back, the atmosphere is great.
“We’re not out of it [Covid] yet, but I’ve been double-jabbed and I’ll generally wear a mask if I’m indoors, I do realise it hasn’t gone away. I went to the Open gold in Kent in July and we all had to [show a Covid Pass], so that was no problem and it wouldn’t bother me.”
The results were kind to the returning racegoers on Friday, with the favourite winning the first three races. For much of the afternoon, there was also bright sunshine on Cleeve Hill, where the trees, as yet, have scarcely been touched by autumn. It was, in many respects, a perfect afternoon at the races, a world away from the sense of brooding, imminent threat at the end of the Festival in March 2020.
And yet, as the first crowd at Cheltenham for 19 months streamed away on a bright autumn evening, the sense of uncertainty remained. The three-day November meeting here is the second-biggest of the season. Will it be as free and easy then to enjoy a day at the track? It is one of the few things that nobody here on Friday would be inclined to bet on.