Return of Cheltenham Festival chance for racing to look forward following tough times

CHELTENHAM bosses hope the National Hunt Festival will be a showcase for the sport after 12 months of controversy.

Irish runners are put through their paces at Cheltenham before the National Hunt Festival.

No spectators will be present at the four-day meeting which is taking place in a biosecure bubble – and in total contrast to the 200,000-plus racegoers who attended last year’s Festival.

Even though the presence of crowds then was backed by the Government as Britain braced itself for the Covid lockdown, the decision was widely criticised.

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More recently, the sport has been sickened to its core after an appalling photo emerged of 2016 Gold Cup-winning trainer Gordon Elliott sitting on a dead horse on his gallops while taking a call on his mobile phone.

Jockey Rachael Blackmore aboard Balko Des Flos on the gallops at Cheltenham Racecourse ahead of the Cheltenham Festival that will take place in front of empty stands.

The Irish trainer has been banned from the sport for six months and his many runners, including dual Grand National winner Tiger Roll, will run in the name of Denise Foster this week.

“We’re looking forward to what will be a very different Festival,” said Jockey Club regional director Ian Renton last night. “Obviously it is the first time it has been behind closed doors, so the build-up has been extremely different to usual.

“It’s been an interesting build-up, concentrating on the racing rather than on those who would normally be coming here, but we’ve also been looking at what we can do for them at home.

“This is one of the highlights of the sporting season, the four best days’ jumping you will ever see. Yes, there won’t be the same atmosphere on course but we can all look positively to what’s ahead of us.”

Willie Mullins has a formidable team at this year's Cheltenham Festival.

Renton, whose father Bobby trained Freebooter to win the 1960 National from stables near Ripon, hopes the Festival may be seen as a springboard to better times with the vaccine rollout and drop in Covid infection rates.

“A year ago we were at the beginning of the learning curve,” he added. “All the negatives that have been referred to, I’d love to think we can park those, put them behind us and look forward to four fantastic days.

“Look at the 28 races – I don’t think anyone can fail to be excited by them.”