Cheltenham 2020: ‘Face-masks were as rare as a 100-1 winner’

Racing journalist Brian O’Connor looks back on the ‘glorified Petri dish’ that was Cheltenham 2020

Realisation of just how incongruous it was to press ahead with Cheltenham 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic took hold only fully dawned the night before the festival began. Over pictures of Italian army trucks removing body bags from a hospital, the BBC Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis said we in this part of the world were two weeks behind such scenes occurring here.

No ifs, buts or equivocation: it was inevitable. As I sat in a hotel room in Cheltenham town, the prospect of going to work the next day at the biggest national hunt meeting of the year, cheek by jowl with 60,000 others, suddenly seemed preposterous.

It is estimated that more than 10,000 Irish people travelled over for the festival, though it is remains unclear what role the event played in transmission of the virus between Britain and Ireland.

On the flight from Dublin to Birmingham earlier that evening there was no obvious anxiety. Someone coughed and it had provoked cheers. The usual Cheltenham anticipation was intact.

In the face of an existential threat the dominant emotion there seemed to be relief at having got the festival under the wire just in time

It was business as usual at the racecourse the next morning too: no apparent misgivings among press room colleagues. There were jokes about who’d spot the first face-mask.

I rang base and said that we were sitting in a glorified Petri dish. The article I wrote subsequently said the logic for staging the festival was grotesque. In the face of an existential threat the dominant emotion there seemed to be relief at having got the festival under the wire just in time. But “getting away with it” would wind up being a hollow victory.

The crowds were already crammed in. The debate about holding Cheltenham behind closed doors should have been had weeks before. But almost no one wanted it. Any racing official peeping over the parapet with such an idea would have been immediately shot down. The few people publicly predicting the worst in the run-up to Cheltenham were mostly dismissed as killjoys.

The British government gave the festival the green light, and no one in the British Horseracing Authority or the Jockey Club was prepared to stick their neck out. Whether they should have is still a valid question. But by Tuesday March 10th, it seemed there was no turning back.

The following day brought confirmation of the first death in Ireland from Covid-19. The threat wasn’t theoretical anymore. Suddenly pictures of massed crowds drinking, betting and having the craic in Cheltenham felt spectacularly tone-deaf. Public opinion changed dramatically.

By then the decision had been made that I should leave after just two days. A few Irish colleagues were of the same mind.

Most of the press room thought we were over-reacting. “Don’t be daft. Someone has to practically cough into your mouth for you to get it,” one English journalist said. It contributed to a general sense that the threat was starting to mean much more in Ireland than in Britain.

Maybe that’s why the Irish government suddenly declared they wouldn’t have let Cheltenham go ahead if it had been up to them, a notable piece of “after-timing” that ignored how mute they’d been on the matter beforehand.

By then the reputational cost to racing as a whole was already rapidly being totted up

At an event like this, a journalist spends most of their time in the press room but the few sorties outside showed how obvious the problems were. The hand-sanitiser stations dotted around the enclosures were little more than token gestures in a heaving mass of humanity. Social-distancing wasn’t even a concept. Face-masks were as rare as a 100-1 winner.

By 11am on Thursday March 12th, I was grateful to be home and covering the remainder of Cheltenham from my couch. Advice to self-isolate appeared to be optional. But already good sense suggested caution to be the best policy.

By then the reputational cost to racing as a whole was already rapidly being totted up. Much of the criticism was rooted in hindsight and plenty of prejudices got paraded in cartoon stereotypes.

It was a British racing show but Irish racing inevitably got caught in the backwash, a reflection perhaps of the peculiarity of how Ireland’s biggest race meeting of the year takes place in Gloucestershire.

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