Was it wrong to give the Cheltenham Festival the go-ahead?

Epatante returning after winning the 2020 Unibet Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy,
March 10th

The Cheltenham Festival has been subject to heavy criticism since its staging in early March following accusations that hosting it only accelerated the spread of the Coronavirus across the UK. 

The four-day event was hosted just days before the Government called for a temporary ban on mass social gatherings, but many have argued across social media that officials were still in the wrong to give the Festival the ‘green light’. 

Chief Executive of the British Horseracing Authority Nick Rust is tasked with the job of answering to these criticisms but insists that they took what, at the time, was thought to be the right course of action.  

I spoke to the Racing Post’s Joshua Stacey, who echoed Mr. Rust’s thoughts. 

“Should the Festival have gone ahead? I think it should have… Hindsight is wonderful, if you’d asked me five days after, I’d have said no but… at that time people didn’t know the severity of the Coronavirus.” 

He added: “we asked a question, and the answer from the Government was that yes we could race.” 

One of the issues faced is that people find it is easy to use the Festival as a scapegoat for rate of the virus spreading increasing; but as Stacey alluded to in the interview, it wasn’t the only mass social gathering that was occurring that week with Crufts, concerts and various sports fixtures such as the Liverpool v Atletico fixture all happening at the same time. 

Attendance figures demonstrated that although minimal, this year’s Festival figures did decrease on the efforts of last year with some people less willing to face the risk than others – but not many.  

Cheltenham attendances for 2019 and 2020

As far as Stacey was concerned, he felt most people took the view that “the racing authorities wouldn’t have raced if it was absolutely unsafe” and as the Government insisted it was safe to do so, who could blame them for feeling that way? 

I also spoke to the Racing Post’s Maddy Playle who naturally replicated what Joshua Stacey had to say but also felt the inquiry into hosting the Festival was justifiable. 

“The scrutiny of large-scale events prior to the lockdown and social distancing restrictions is understandable. In our case, the Cheltenham Festival has not escaped this.” 

Unfortunately, Playle felt that the Festival represented an easy target for people to prey on… 

“The general public’s perception of the sport has changed in recent years and could explain this [scrutiny]. It is something the sport must navigate carefully in the coming months.” 

However, she stressed that the industry was under the impression that they were doing what was considered acceptable at the time and approached every available avenue accordingly to prepare for what was set to be another busy Festival. 

Sanitary station situated just outside the parade ring

“The Festival has received such negative coverage… but the truth of the matter is the Cheltenham Festival also took place following government advice and took into consideration public health.” 

Sadly, prior to it taking place nobody foresaw just how damaging the virus would be and it is still unclear as to just how much of an impact hosting the Cheltenham Festival had in accelerating the spread of the coronavirus. 

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