The flagship event in National Hunt racing is the Cheltenham Festival. For four days during the middle week of March, the best hurdlers and chasers from around Europe will gather at the famous Gloucestershire venue, all bidding to win some of the most historic races the sport has to offer.
The Champion Hurdle headlines the opening Tuesday at the Cheltenham Festival. Day two’s feature race is the Queen Mother Champion Chase, while Thursday’s card features the oldest of the four major Championship race, the Stayers’ Hurdle. The final Grade One race to be staged during the Cheltenham Festival is the Cheltenham Gold Cup, a historic three-and-a-quarter mile chase which has been won by many of the sport’s greats.
The countdown to the 2021 Cheltenham Festival is well-and-truly on. Yet, the question still remains – will there be a Cheltenham Festival this year?
No sooner had last year’s meeting ended, that horse racing was brought to a complete standstill. The coronavirus pandemic stopped all sport taking place in the UK for two months in the Spring, and horse racing didn’t recommence until June 1st.
A condensed flat racing season followed, but things were starting to get back to somewhere near normal when the National Hunt season resumed in October. Spectators returned to certain racetracks, and the news that a vaccine would be rolled out in the New Year gave the British public a real sense of hope.
Sadly, that feeling didn’t last long. The government enforced a second national lockdown at the beginning of December, and punters were once again banished from racetracks. In January, the Prime Minister announced stricter protocols were to be imposed in a bid to curb the rise of Covid-19, and a third country-wide lockdown was announced.
Professional sport, thankfully, has been allowed to continue. All the major horse racing meetings, like the King George VI Chase at Kempton and the Leopardstown Christmas Festival, took place as planned over the festival period. Once the Dublin Racing Festival has been and gone this weekend, the attention of the sporting world will turn to Cheltenham.
In answer to the question posed earlier, yes, there will be a Cheltenham Festival in 2021. However, this year’s meeting will be like none we’ve ever experienced, after RacingInsider.com reported that the 2021 Cheltenham Festival will likely take place behind closed doors.
Many feared the combination of Covid-19 and Brexit would scupper any Irish participation at Cheltenham. That now seems unlikely, after several Irish trainers successful trailed the running of horses in Britain, and the likes of Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott will bring strong squads with to Gloucestershire next month.
A Cheltenham Festival without spectators will lessen the appeal of National Hunt racing’s most popular attraction for some. For most, the fact that this popular meeting still goes ahead as planned is a cause for celebration, and celebrate it we shall.