The Waiting Game: Will Punters Be Allowed At the Cheltenham Festival 2021?

Black Horse and BridleAccording to the Jockey Club’s representative for Cheltenham, it is ‘very much in the hands of the government’ as to whether punters will be allowed at the famous Festival in March or not.

Ian Renton, who will be involved with discussions with ministers over the racecourses plans for safety and social distancing in the near future, has not ruled out crowds attending the Cheltenham Festival in 2021 – even if the total capacity over the four days of the meeting is reduced.

The venue will host their first meeting post-lockdown in October, and if all goes well with pilot schemes at Warwick and Newmarket next week – where a small number of punters will be allowed on site – the hope is that spectators will also be given the green light to attend Cheltenham’s traditional curtain-raiser.

And if that goes well, then who knows? But attention will certainly start to shift towards the Festival, which is now less than six months away.

“We’re very much in the hands of the government, and we’ve all seen some of the messages coming out of potential restrictions if numbers are allowed at all,” Renton said when asked about the possibility of a crowd in October.

“We’re confident of the Showcase meeting going ahead behind closed doors with owners present, and that’s what we certainly anticipate being able to do, but we’ll continue to talk to the various authorities to see if we can have any improvement on that.”

Another major player in British horse racing is also awaiting more news from the government. Ascot is set to host British Champions Day on October 17, preceded by a two-day meeting earlier in the month, and the director of racing at the legendary venue is hoping that they too will be able to welcome punters across the threshold.

“Until the trials are complete and the government have managed to clarify what the rules are going to be for sports crowds then we’re waiting in the wings for instructions,” Smith said.

“There’s always plans in place, including for our meeting at the start of next month, should we be allowed to host a crowd, but we’re waiting on the government. It certainly would be possible to set the site up zonally and for limited numbers, but there’s no detailed plan as yet and we’re expecting some clarity in the next few days.”

Will We Get to Hear the Famous ‘Cheltenham Roar’ in 2021?

Crowd in Black and White

It’s unrealistic to think that the typical 250,000 people who flock to the Cheltenham Festival each year will be permitted entry in 2021. That would make distancing an impossibility.

However, Renton has not ruled out the possibility of larger numbers – higher than the 1,000 allowed at the trial events – being able to attend Cheltenham Festival 2021.

“If we can have larger crowds then absolutely we’ll be able to prepare for that,” he confirmed.

“But it’s one of those years where you have to look at every conceivable option and be able to manage whatever that may be.

“I’m hopeful there will be an extension of pilot schemes or something similar that allow larger racecourses to have proper trials with more meaningful crowds than 1,000 people.”

At the time of writing, tickets for Cheltenham Festival had yet to go on sale, although expressions of interest are being taken through the Jockey Club website.

Whatever happens, organisers will be desperate to avoid a repeat of the shenanigans that unfolded in 2020. Despite the on-course action going without a hitch, a number of punters contracted Covid-19 during the meeting, and the culture secretary Oliver Dowden had to make a public statement defending the decision to allow the Festival to go ahead.