The new season at Cheltenham opened in near-silence here on Friday, seven months after the packed stands on Gold Cup day in mid-March supplied one of the abiding images of the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic. There was no roar as the winners galloped up the hill and no acclaim as they entered the most storied winner’s enclosure in jumping, a foretaste of what seems sure to be a Festival without paying spectators next spring.
It will be a Festival without some familiar names too, as RSA and the Racing Post both dropped their long-standing sponsorships of Grade One novice chases at the meeting earlier this week. While Ian Renton, Cheltenham’s managing director, is confident that replacements sponsors will be signed up shortly, it did nothing to settle the nerves ahead of a season that promises to have as much uncertainty off the track as there is on it.
“You can always be optimistic that things might change again,” Renton said, “but also you have to be realistic and think, yes, we could have 28 fantastic races out there in March with a very limited audience.
“We have 24 individual sponsors at the Festival and naturally when those contracts come up for renewal there will always be one or two companies that decide to change direction. We’ve renewed three [contracts] in the last week [with Ballymore Properties, St James’s Place and Glenfarclas] and we’re in advanced talks to sponsor two of the most prestigious novice chases in the calendar.”
Like any major racecourse, Cheltenham makes at least 70 per cent of its annual revenue from spectators, but it also has a unique place in the hearts and dreams of jumping fans which even Aintree cannot match. “The power of Cheltenham” was how Kim Bailey described it, after his five-year-old Does He Know took the opening race for the Yes He Does syndicate, several of whom were in the winner’s enclosure to greet their gelding.
“People don’t realise the power of Cheltenham,” Bailey said. “It’s what everybody wants to do if they have a horse in training, this is where they want to be, crowd or no crowd. When we’re here in March, it’s going to be pretty tough, but if they have a winner, I promise you they’ll forget about it.
“As long as owners can go and see their horses run, they’ll forgive us an awful lot. There’s races at Bangor next week where they can’t go and I’ve already got owners asking me not to run their horses. They want to be there when it happens, even if they can’t pat the horse, because they don’t get the opportunity very often.”
Out on the track, Fusil Raffles put down an early marker for the Arkle Trophy with a comprehensive defeat of three rivals in the two-mile novice chase, while Rouge Vif, who was last seen finishing third behind Put The Kettle On in last season’s Arkle, produced the most eye-catching success of the afternoon as he ran away with the card’s two-mile handicap chase, despite giving at least 11lb to all but one of his opponents.
Harry Whittington’s six-year-old motored away from his field on the turn for home and was cut to around 20-1 for the Queen Mother Champion Chase on the second day of next year’s Festival.
“I hoped he had improved for a summer break as I ride him myself most days and he feels a more powerful animal,” the trainer said. “He has obviously strengthened up a lot, but to win a handicap off a mark of 156 like that is impressive, he has slightly surprised me.”
Rouge Vif could return to Cheltenham for the Shloer Chase at the November meeting in three weeks’ time, when the atmosphere at a meeting that normally attracts more than 70,000 spectators will be even more noticeable for its absence.
As Bailey put it, though, “there’s still a day’s racing here, if you’re looking that way [towards the course]. The disappointing thing is when you walk in here [the winner’s enclosure].
“But when crowds come back, we’ll forget this. It’s like having the builders in your house, you hate every single minute of it, but they day they’ve gone, you’ve forgotten they were there. We’ll forget about it.”