Strict conditions facing Irish contingent at a much-changed Cheltenham
Just 170 visitors, including jockeys, will be largely confined to an ‘Irish bubble’
During racing the up to 30 Irish jockeys travelling from this country will be kept separate from their cross-channel colleagues in different weighrooms. Photograph: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images
Just 166 Irish jockeys, trainers and stable staff will be at Cheltenham for next week’s unprecedented behind-closed-doors festival.
The biggest race meeting of the year normally attracts 10,000 racegoers travelling from Ireland.
However, the Covid-19 pandemic means Cheltenham 2021 will see core personnel only at the track which contains an ‘Irish Bubble’.
Visitors from this country are not allowed mix with locals and staff have to stay within the confines of the racecourse stable-yard and one of the track enclosures throughout their stay.
Temporary on-site accommodation is available on-course while there is some too at a nearby hotel, access to which is through a private road.
During racing the up to 30 Irish jockeys travelling from this country will be kept separate from their cross-channel colleagues in different weighrooms.
The Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board (IHRB), which has implemented strict protocols alongside the British authorities, expects 18 individual trainers from Ireland to have runners next week. However, many trainers won’t be travelling themselves.
“With Covid-19, and going over there to stay on-site, there’s no socialising and no owners to entertain. There is a five-day quarantine when everyone comes back so a considerable number of trainers are not going,” said the IHRB’s chief medical officer, Dr Jennifer Pugh, on Friday.
“We have isolation cabins over there so should someone feel unwell or someone has a positive result they will go into isolation.
“Unfortunately they will then be stuck in the UK for 10 days before being allowed travel home. They will have to do isolation over there.
“That is one of the risks and why we’ve advised to minimise contacts in recent weeks so they don’t turn up a surprise positive,” she added.
Testing is continuing on the run-up to the start of the festival on Tuesday.
Earlier this week it was confirmed one unnamed jockey, who was asymptomatic, tested positive for coronavirus but he is expected to recover in time to compete at Cheltenham.
Travel arrangements for horses and stable staff are as normal. But once they arrive at the racecourse they must stay in the ‘Irish Bubble’ except when competing.
Jockeys have to restrict their movements and are not allowed ride out in the mornings. Jockeys have elite athlete status and can travel between the two countries. Everyone else though must supply a negative PCR test and undergo a mandatory five-day isolation period on their return to Ireland.
It makes for a fraught build-up to jump racing’s flagship event which on Friday saw a couple of high-profile equine stars drop out of contention.
Willie Mullins’s big Arkle Trophy hope, Energumene, met with a training setback and misses out on a eagerly anticipated clash with Shishkin.
The English star Thyme Again will also miss Thursday’s Stayers’ Hurdle after sustaining a late muscle problem.
“Unfortunately it’s just very bad timing. He’s got to have a few easy days which you can’t really do before Cheltenham so he’s not going to get there,” said Thyme Again’s trainer Philip Hobbs.
In his absence a total of 18 entries remain in the Stayers after Friday’s confirmation stage and the 2019 winner Paisley Park tops the betting.
Denise Foster, who has taken over as the licence holder at Gordon Elliott’s Cullentra stables while he serves a six-month suspension, has three left in the race.
They include the JP McManus-owned Sire Du Berlais who is a 4-1 second favourite.