Crowds back at Cheltenham but Festival numbers still likely to be limited

Crowds back at Cheltenham but Festival numbers still likely to be limited

Nicky Henderson was on the punters’ side of the fence here on Friday and enjoying every moment as around 2,000 racegoers returned to the home of jumping. “I’m playing as an owner rather than a trainer today, so I can’t be in there [the winner’s enclosure],” he said. “It’s lovely. It’s never a hollow feeling winning at Cheltenham, but it’s a lot better than the last one.”

A few hundred socially distanced spectators greeted Mister Fisher, Henderson’s winner of the Peterborough Chase, with polite applause rather than a hearty cheer, which is likely to be the norm until the Festival in March and beyond. But some other Cheltenham traditions – like a queue to get served at the burger van – were back, as the track took what Ian Renton, its managing director, called “a really important step” in the sport’s recovery from the huge losses inflicted by the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s fantastic them to be able to come on course and enjoy the experience first-hand,” Renton said.

“Things remain so much in the balance. We’ve seen the ups-and-downs of what’s happening with Covid and the government at the moment, and we remain totally in the hands of the government.

“We’ve got a limit of 2,000 here today, we obviously hope there might be some improvement on that by March but we have to follow the guidelines and see what happens in the wider domain.”

Privately, Cheltenham’s executives strongly suspect that the roll-out of coronavirus vaccines and a possible easing of restrictions in the spring will come too late to get more than a few thousand people, at best, into the track for the Festival. But there is now real hope that an up-and-coming chaser like Mister Fisher, who seems perfectly suited by two-and-a-half miles on the New course, will be greeted by a proper crowd here at some point in his career.

“Nico [de Boinville, his jockey] says the Ryanair is the race for him and I’ll go with that,” Henderson said. “He doesn’t want to go three miles.”

The crowd were treated to several close finishes, none more so than in the Glenfarclas Cross-Country Handicap as Defi Des Carres tied up in the final strides having been well clear over the last and was touched off on the line by Some Neck, from John McConnell’s stable in Ireland.

It took a very strong ride to get him there, however, and Ben Harvey, Some Neck’s jockey, was subsequently banned for 11 days and fined £400 for using his whip “above the permitted level from the last fence” on what was his first ride in Britain.

Gina Andrews, meanwhile, was reported to be conscious and talking after a heavy fall from Haafapiece at the final flight in the Catesby Handicap Hurdle.

“Gina was OK when she left the track,” Bridget Andrews, the rider’s sister said. “She looked a bit of a mess, but she was talking.

“It’s pretty rubbish I couldn’t go to hospital with her, but her husband has gone to hospital and hopefully he’ll be able to see her. She will not look pretty for a few days, but fingers crossed it’s only superficial.”