Cheltenham 2021: Irish contingent reminded to stick with tight Covid protocols

Festival will be very different this year with just 166 key personnel travelling over

Horses that were from Gordon Elliott’s stables on the gallops at Cheltenham Racecourse ahead of the Cheltenham Festival which starts on Tuesday. Photo: David Davies/PA Wire

Horses that were from Gordon Elliott’s stables on the gallops at Cheltenham Racecourse ahead of the Cheltenham Festival which starts on Tuesday. Photo: David Davies/PA Wire

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The importance of compliance with the strict Covid-19 protocols in place at Cheltenham this week has been stressed to the Irish jockeys, trainers and stable staff on the ground at the festival.

A total of just 166 key personnel will travel from Ireland for the biggest National Hunt meeting of the year which starts on Tuesday.

Although 18 individual trainers are expected to have runners over the course of the four days many handlers aren’t making the trip to Cheltenham.

Up to 30 riders from here will be in action at the festival while the rest are stable staff looking after runners.

Champion trainer Willie Mullins alone is expected to have up to 60 horses competing.

An ‘Irish bubble’ has been created on-course to isolate the visitors and they are not allowed leave it unless involved in the participation of a horse on raceday.

The town of Cheltenham is out of bounds at all times and no mingling is allowed with British-based colleagues. Only designated eating, sleeping and recreational facilities can be used. No alcohol is permitted on-site.

The regulations in place to allow the festival go ahead behind closed doors also means jockeys on-site even aren’t allowed ride out in the mornings.

As the first wave of Irish runners familiarised themselves with the track ahead of Tuesday’s kick-off to this unique festival, the importance of compliance with the rules was once again underlined by the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board.

Any breaches of protocol at Cheltenham will be a matter for the British Horseracing Authority. However the IHRB hasn’t ruled out taking action themselves should any breach occur.

Breaches

“The small team who are liaising with the Irish people going to Cheltenham will have been in regular contact with them for numerous different reasons such as PCR tests, paperwork etc.

“The importance of complying with all rules has been stressed on more than one occasion.

“Should there be any breaches of rules while in attendance at Cheltenham it could be something we would also look at in terms of disciplinary action, in addition to whatever sanctions the BHA have in place,” a spokesman said on Sunday.

A year on from when Cheltenham drew huge criticism for proceeding with crowds just after the declaration of a global pandemic there is sure to be huge focus on the 2021 festival which goes ahead behind closed doors.

It also goes ahead on the back of negative headlines about the sport arising from Gordon Elliott’s six-month licence suspension for having damaged the reputation of racing over a controversial photo.

Everyone within the ‘Irish bubble’ has had to provide a negative PCR test prior to travelling.

Any positive outcome by a jockey in particular could have significant implications although on Sunday there were no reports of any of the travelling Irish riders testing positive.

Pre-festival testing saw one unnamed jockey, who was asymptomatic, test positive for coronavirus but he is expected to have recovered in time to participate this week.

Final declarations for day one of the festival took place on Sunday with the top mares Honeysuckle and Epatante topping 10 contenders for the Unibet Champion Hurdle.

Epatante will bid to become the first mare to successfully defend the Champion Hurdle crown while Henry De Bromehad’s Honeysuckle is trying to preserve her unbeaten record.

“She’s never been beaten and that obviously fills you with confidence. I think her last run (Irish Champion Hurdle) was spectacular although there were a few horses that didn’t quite run to form and will probably run materially better on Tuesday,” Honeysuckle’s owner, Kenny Alexander, reported.

“Henry seems quite confident. He’s always very cautious but he seems very confident in her.

“She’s 9-4 so she’s got a 30 per cent chance of winner; that does not mean she’s got a 70 per cent chance of losing!

“She’s favourite and I think she should be but it’s going to be a huge battle to win the race.

“Irrespective of what happens on Tuesday she’s been a brilliant mare to win and I’ve been very lucky to have her. I think it’s going to be a fantastic festival. I can’t wait for it really,” he added.

Willie Mullins left the trio of Shajah, Saldier and James Du Berlais in the Champion Hurdle while Honeysuckle’s stable companion, Aspire Tower, is also in the line-up.

Abacadabras, formerly trained by Gordon Elliott but now under the licence of Denise Foster, completes the Irish challenge for the opening day feature.

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