A surreal start to Cheltenham Festival without crowds as racing appreciates its love of the sport

THERE will not a be a more ironically named horse than Appreciate It, the 24-length runaway winner of the opening race at the 2021 WellChild Cheltenham Festival.

The unique scene after Appreciate It won the opening race at Cheltenham.

The odds-on favourite, and his victorious rider, Paul Townend, would – in normal times – have been cheered home by raucous crowds counting their winnings. Instead just silence.

“It was different,” reflected the jockey as jump racing’s flagship four-day fixture went ahead without spectators. “But we are so lucky to be here and able to take part in the sport we all love.”

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

And the surreal scene as Appreciate It, and the other day one victors, cantered past empty stands back to the hallowed winner’s enclosure was in complete contrast to the unfolding controversy at Cheltenham 12 months ago.

The surreal scene as the Cheltenham Festival went ahead without crowds.

Despite the UK’s first death from Covid being confirmed on March 5, the Government gave its consent for the National Hunt Festival to begin five days later in the presence of up to 70,000 racegoers each day.

There were no face masks – or social distancing. Yet, as the meeting progressed, even those in denial about the pandemic could not remain in denial to the threat as many questioned the decision to race on all four days.

As they left on the third day, the warning from Boris Johnson was as chilling as the hailstorm: “This is the worst public health crisis for a generation. Many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.”

Even then, those in the Cotswolds thought it would soon pass. Little did they know. The next day, the Cheltenham Gold Cup went ahead – and the aforementioned Townend was greeted like a conquering hero after landing successive renewals of the blue riband race on Al Boum Photo who goes for the hat-trick this Friday.

This was Vintage Clouds winning at Cheltenham for Sue and Harvey Smith under Ryan Mania.

It was only the following week – too late for many people – that all racing was called off and the backdrop to last year’s Festival still cast a long shadow over the sport.

Even Nick Rust, the then British Horseracing Authority chief executive who lives in Yorkshire, accepts “only in hindsight” that Gold Cup day should not have been run. Now, 12 months later, Cheltenham’s challenge is to show a humility while also showcasing the very best of the sport to watching ITV viewers.

For those watching on television, there was still the famous ‘roar’ which always marks the start of the first race – albeit last year’s cheers played over ‘live’ pictures. “Some traditions are too good to leave at home,” said ITV’s erudite commentator Richard Hoiles as the aptly-named For Pleasure took an early lead.

There was Nicky Henderson, Britain’s most successful trainer, holding back the tears as Shishkin confirmed his superstar status by landing 
the Arkle Trophy. “It’s not the same without the people here but it still does the same to you,” he said as he described the nerves.

The absence of crowds did not matter to Honeysuckle’s jockey Rachael Blackmore – the record books will contain no asterisks after she became the first female jockey to win the Champion Hurdle.

And a Yorkshire winner as Vintage Clouds rolled back the years for comeback jockey Ryan Mania and racing legends Sue and Harvey Smith who stayed at home “to mind the shop” at their stables on Baildon Moor.

Fifteen years after their only previous success at the meeting, it was still a Cheltenham winner. And they will always appreciate that as racing comes to terms with Covid one year on.