The 2020 Cheltenham Festival will go ahead as usual despite fears over the coronavirus outbreak in Europe.
Sporting fixtures across the continent have been cancelled or suspended in recent days. The virus has hit Italy particularly hard and has resulted in Serie A games being played behind close doors. However, a full suspension of the football league was avoided after consultations between the Italian Government and Serie A officials on Sunday.
In France, public health officials have prohibited all public gathers over 1000 people as the infection rate in the country continues to grow. Health minister Olivier Veran said. “The priority is to do all we can to slow the transmission of the virus,”. The Paris marathon, initially scheduled for April 5, has been postponed until October 18.
Here in Britain, the authorities have been taking a more measured approach to the outbreak. Despite having nearly 300 cases, the government has yet to issue any cancellation or postponement notices which affect sporting events.
This approach came as a significant relief to the organisers of the Cheltenham Festival. The four-day horse racing spectacular is due to start on Tuesday 10th March and finish on Friday 13th with the running of the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Around 250,000 racing fans are expected at the course over the four days.
While Cheltenham racecourse has always insisted that the Festival would go ahead, it did not stop punters betting on the probability of it being abandoned. Betfair saw a flurry of bets earlier in the week which saw the odds shorten significantly. Proving Festival punters really will bet on anything!
A spokesperson for Cheltenham Racecourse said: “We look forward to staging The Festival presented by Magners at Cheltenham next week.
“We welcome the government’s guidance that the business of the country should continue as usual, while ensuring we adhere to the latest public health advice.
“We have increased the number of washbasins and toilet facilities on site.”
With less than 24 hours to go until the Festival, a case of coronavirus has been confirmed in Cheltenham. Overall, three cases have now been identified in Gloucestershire. However, this new case is unlikely to have any impact on the current plans.
"I just hope that whoever goes and rides more winners at Cheltenham than me has as much fun as I did doing it"
— CheltenhamRacecourse (@CheltenhamRaces) March 9, 2020
It’s worth noting that horse racing is probably the most prepared sport for managing virus outbreaks. In 2019 the outbreak of Equine Flu saw all racing in the United Kingdom suspended just five weeks before the start of the Cheltenham Festival. In 2001 the foot-and-mouth crises hit, causing the abandonment of the Festival that year.
Even if the punters manage to beat the bookies at Cheltenham, it’s unlikely racing fans will be hugging each other after a winning bet. Expect to see the ‘Corona Elbow Bump’ become a thing in the betting ring this year. If you’re looking for tips on the Festival’s big races, do try sbo.net for all the latest for Cheltenham news and views.
Away from Cheltenham, one racing fixture which could be affected is the 2020 Grand National. The big Aintree race is still a few weeks away (4th April), should authorities see a spike in coronavirus numbers, they could follow in the footsteps of France and ban large gatherings. The Grand National typically attracts over 70,000 people on the day of the race. Unlike Cheltenham, Aintree is situated in a large urban area that could present more significant challenges in stopping the spread of the virus.
One alternative would be to run the race without fans attending the course. However, the economic impact would be enormous for Aintree Racecourse and the Jockey Club. I Suspect the organisers would rather postpone and attempt to run the race later in the year. The option would be to switch out the 2020 Becher Chase meeting for the Grand National. Both races are run over the same big Aintree fences, and the ground is likely to be suitable in early December.
For now, we’ll have to wait and see what happens in the next few weeks. Hopefully, the virus will disappear as quickly as it arrived.