Cheltenham Festival Sport

Opinion: Did the politics and finances of the Cheltenham Races lead to the deaths of thousands?

It’s three years to the day since Boris Johnson said “now is the time for everyone to stop non-essential contact and traffic”, the Cheltenham Festival enjoys the first of its two massive closing days with St Patrick’s Day seeing 50,000 flock to Prestbury Park. But in 2020, the races weren’t stopped and thousands still came. Looking back, this was a mistake.

The Jockey Club faced immense criticism in 2020 after the races attracted 60,000 people a day in what proved to be part of the birth of COVID-19 in the United Kingdom with Cheltenham, among other events, acting as a superspreader sending the disease all over the UK and Ireland. The decision to allow Atletico Madrid to travel into the country to face Liverpool in the Champions League was also a key factor in the spread of coronavirus.

One single case had been reported in Cheltenham prior to the Festival with the World Health Organisation declaring COVID-19 a pandemic and warning the world on March 11th 2020, the second day of racing. So why were they allowed to go ahead?

The almost £300m the races bring into the town’s economy would have been a huge hit to endure especially with the races already having begun, and the likelihood that the nation would still have been brought to a standstill fairly high, but Matt Hancock’s links to the festival and financial benefits caused a stir among many with the potential for lives to be saved and the effect of the pandemic to be lower weighed up against the financial implications of its cancellation. Hancock was believed to have been given up to £350,000 by people involved in the racing industry and had attended Cheltenham Races for free on multiple occasions. His former Landlord was also Chairman of Cheltenham Races for 21 years. 

Hancock’s questionable actions had new light brought upon them by the recent leaked Whatsapp messages discussing the benefits to the economy compared to loss of life. 

Even Piers Morgan spoke on the ludicrousy of allowing it to take place, saying “When they said it was a pandemic, the leadership should have got together and said ‘we are cancelling the rest of the Festival, regardless of what the Government says, all bets are off’.” 

Critics came from elsewhere too with then deputy Prime Minister of Ireland Simon Coveney telling Prime Time “If Cheltenham was being held in Ireland I don’t think it would be on, quite frankly.” The Irish Times also remarked on the poor decision by saying “Damned if this timeless paradise of horse-iness is going to be thrown off course by some poxy little global pandemic”. Ireland had lower mortality rates than England. 

Overall, the races may not be the sole reason for the coming lockdowns and rising death toll, but they were certainly a key factor and the cancellation of the next races would have helped contain the spread of the disease but it was most likely too late at that point with thousands of people already having travelled to the town. 

It would have been a tough decision to make, with huge backlash from all visitors and the infancy of the pandemic meaning few really knew what was to come, is it unfair to look back with the benefit of hindsight and say ‘you should have cancelled it, look what you’ve done?’ It probably is unfair, but that doesn’t mean it’s unjust. As someone not too keen on the races, I would jump at the opportunity to tell everyone to go home, but take away the personal bias of either enjoying or disliking the races, one would have to admit that allowing it to continue was a poor, life costing, decision embroiled in potential personal gain, finances, and politics.

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