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Decision to go ahead with Cheltenham beggars belief

Something grotesque about allowing festival to continue in face of coronavirus threat

There's something grotesque about the logic for this week's Cheltenham festival going ahead in the face of the threat from coronavirus. That's because I've yet to encounter one person who believes it would happen if it had been scheduled for next week.

By definition most of the 60,000 racegoers who will cram into Prestbury Park every day are happy to be here. They wouldn’t have made the effort to travel from all over these islands - and beyond - otherwise.

Almost everyone, though, admits to a sense of National Hunt racing’s greatest showpiece sneaking in under the wire just in time. There’s a widespread belief the dates have just about landed in Cheltenham’s favour.

Aintree’s Grand National festival in three just over weeks time is odds-on to be affected by Covid-19. That’s because the British government has indicated greater measures to combat coronavirus will be put in place sooner rather than later.


In theory that could mean the National gets cancelled or ends up taking place behind closed doors with only racing professionals on the ground.

For now, though, the official British government line is still that there’s no rationale to close or cancel sporting events as they stand, including football matches and race meetings.

But it seems to be only a matter of time before that official green light turns a stark red.

Wider society is staring down the barrel of a health crisis and an existential quandary. Models of potential scenarios are genuinely frightening. The Irish government has warned more than half the population could contract Covid-19. Death rates of one to three per cent are predicted.

There are reports of the health system in Britain making contingency plans for triage arrangements to decide which patients will have the best chance of survival.

Near-unanimity about this getting worse before it gets better makes any sense of ‘getting away with it” at Cheltenham seem ludicrous.

If it wouldn’t take place next week, then the argument for it being reckless to take place now is easy to make.

Cramming 250,000 people into a single site over four days risks turning the racetrack into some dangerous petri dish.

Already many workers are being urged to work from home in order to try and contain the spread of coronavirus. This is a social climate where council meetings are being cancelled because seating arrangements are too close.

In such circumstances it is counterintuitive to have thousands of people working cheek-by-jowl with huge crowds out for an entertaining day at the racecourse.

The logic for the British government stance on sporting events is reported to be an attempt to buy more time before getting into line with other European countries.

But if worse is to come, then any sense of Cheltenham ‘getting away with it’ could end up looking a very hollow and tone-deaf victory.