‘It’s going to be a lonesome Cheltenham this year, with no one travelling there’

The festival is going behind closed doors, and some fans are having withdrawal symptoms

Farmer and retired jockey Gerry O’Neill:  ‘I wasn’t there last year, but I would go most years to get the buzz, it would do you good.’ Photograph: Liam Burke/Press 22

Farmer and retired jockey Gerry O’Neill: ‘I wasn’t there last year, but I would go most years to get the buzz, it would do you good.’ Photograph: Liam Burke/Press 22

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Retired jockey Gerry O’Neill still savours the thrill of riding Chance Coffey to victory in the Coral Cup at Cheltenham in 1995, remembering the thunderous roar he received when he trotted into the winner’s enclosure that day.

“I know what the buzz is like, all right. That race was like any other, until it was over, and then it was unreal,” says the Meanus, Co Limerick racing veteran, who hung up his riding boots in 1998.

This year, Covid-19 will silence the “mad Irish roar”, though the Cheltenham organisers will have “fake sound” on loudspeakers in a bid to create atmosphere at the opening day of the world’s most famous national hunt meeting.

Beginning on Tuesday, Cheltenham will take place behind closed doors, following the controversy last year when it was held in the early days of Covid-19, and was blamed by many for being a “super-spreader”.

“Pressing ahead gave [it] a bit of a bad name,” said Malcolm Hannaford, a Cheltenham shopkeeper, “We know people who have died from Covid, we know people who have long Covid. A lot of people blame the festival.”

The loss of the crowds, both Irish and British, is keenly felt in the Gloucestershire town.

“We understand why it can’t go ahead with crowds this year and I agree with the decision, but it is difficult,” said local hotelier Adam Lillywhite.

No mingling

The town itself is out of bounds for those who will be inside the racecourse during the week, where there will be separate Irish and British sections for jockeys, trainers and horses, with no mingling. Even alcohol is banned.

Like so many others, O’Neill will look on from afar.

“I wasn’t there last year either, but I would go most years to get the buzz, it would do you good, you’d have to experience it to really understand it.”

The memories are many.

“One year, I threw my binoculars up in the air and forgot about them, and they landed down on my head, I was lucky not to get stitches. That’s the kind of an atmosphere that is there, you lose yourself in it.

“It’s like the buzz before the ball is thrown at an All-Ireland final. I remember I took a guy over there four or five years ago and it frightened the s*** out of him, the buzz, it’s so good it’s scary,” says the 54-year-old former jockey.

David Hickey, proprietor of South’s Bar, Limerick city: ‘It’s our four best days of the year... Usually the whole town stops on Friday for the Gold Cup.’ Photograph: Liam Burke/Press 22
David Hickey, proprietor of South’s Bar, Limerick city: ‘It’s our four best days of the year... Usually the whole town stops on Friday for the Gold Cup.’ Photograph: Liam Burke/Press 22
Anyone following racing would be in the pub, and a lot of our customers would have booked their places for lunch, so it was brilliant, but it’s a very bleak week now

The closure of the State’s pubs will make this Cheltenham like no other, too, for many punters, but also for many publicans, who enjoyed some of their best daytime trading during past meetings.

The pandemic has quietened South’s pub in Quinlan Street in Limerick city.

“It’s going to be a lonesome Cheltenham this year, with no pubs open, no betting offices open, and no one travelling there,” says the pub’s owner, Dave Hickey.

Majestic

“It’s our four best days of the year, and Friday for the Gold Cup is usually majestic for us,” Hickey says dejectedly. “Usually the whole town stops on Friday for the Gold Cup, all the offices situated around us would empty out.

“Anyone following racing would be in the pub, and a lot of our customers would have booked their places for lunch, so it was brilliant, but it’s a very bleak week now,” Hickey tells The Irish Times.

Pat Riordan, from Meanus, has attended every Cheltenham racing festival bar three since 1979, usually with friends from Bruff. Last year, one of the group cried off at the last minute.

“The rest of us were bold enough, and we went off and we were all right, there were sanitisers everywhere, you couldn’t miss them,” says Riordan, who is in his 70s.

This year he is “suffering from withdrawals”, he joked.

“None of us are drinkers, mind, we would be unusual that way, so the vice is the horse. This year I’ll sit in front of the TV, we’ll all have to do that.”

– Additional contribution: the Guardian