The 2020 Cheltenham Festival has the legacy of being the last major spectator event before Covid-19 gripped the planet and caused mass disruption to the sporting world. Thousands filled the Prestbury Park concourses last March for the traditional four-day meeting, which brings horse-racing fans from all over the country, and indeed all over the world, together.
While in hindsight the decision to stage the Cheltenham Festival as normal despite the lingering threat of the coronavirus last spring was clearly the wrong one, the absence of spectators at live sport has left fans pining for the days when the stands and terraces of sports grounds were filled to the brim with people cheering for their favourite teams, players, jockeys or horses.
It’s fair to say that the 2021 Cheltenham Festival will have a rather different feel to it. There will be no famous Cheltenham roar when the horses charge neck-and-neck up the infamous hill towards home. The usual hustle and bustle of one of horse racing’s most famous events will be reduced to a more sedate pace, with only the horses, jockeys, trainers and essential staff present at the venue.
It may be strange to witness the Cheltenham Festival in such differing circumstances, but the fact that the meeting will be staged behind closed doors has not changed the fact that horse racing fans up and down the country are rubbing their hands in anticipation and eagerly examining the 2021 Cheltenham betting odds. Although the atmosphere will be very different, Cheltenham still offers four days of top-class racing action, with the biggest names on show fighting for the biggest prizes, not least the Gold Cup.
With the coronavirus pandemic escalating yet again due to a new more transmissible variant of the virus, there is a sense that elite sport has the power to inject brightness into people’s lives like never before. For sports fans, one of the worst aspects of the spring lockdown in 2020 was the lack of live sport, but this year’s Cheltenham Festival can have a galvanising effect on millions of sports fans who are stuck in their homes unable to socialise as they would like to.
But the thrill of seeing the likes of Altior and Al Boum Photo in action will bring cheer to horse racing fans everywhere, and this year’s Festival will help to alleviate much of the strange feeling surrounding sport in recent months. Watching elite sport take place has almost become the norm now, but there is still a wholly unnatural aspect to it, and while it may be painful to watch Cheltenham without the uniquely buoyant atmosphere which usually accompanies it, the action itself will bring much excitement and drama.
It’s fair to say that as the fans poured into the stands for the Cheltenham Festival last year, even in the knowledge that the coronavirus was beginning to spread, few could have anticipated that 12 months later the sporting landscape would have changed so dramatically in terms of spectator involvement. And yet, through it all, we have clung to sport like never before, as a means of bringing us joy and entertainment despite the grim pandemic gripping the world. Cheltenham won’t be normal this year, but it still has the power to bring excitement and entertainment for millions.