Horse racing has always had the issue of trying to maintain a good image. It has gone through some turbulent times, with the likes of animal rights protesters attempting to shut down events and many questioning the ethics behind it for years. As a sport, it has done well to balance out its image with the glitz and glamour of the Cheltenham festival consistently providing a huge influx of cash as well as good press for a sport which so often seems to be on the edge of its next controversy.
However, with the recent revelation regarding trainer Gordon Elliot, horse racing is looking to overcome a large hurdle once again. The coronavirus pandemic has already not helped financially and with the average race prize money decreasing significantly over the last 12 months, the sport does not need another blow to its reputation. It is not its first incident and it’s certainly not going to be its last, but the question on everyone’s lips is whether the Cheltenham Festival will be affected.
Simply put, yes it will.
Despite all the good press surrounding the festival, especially around the lineup for the Gold Cup race on March 19 which has the all the hallmarks of a timeless classic, it is no question that ‘Elliotgate’ will overshadow the event. His recent actions are of course inexcusable, but I find it hard to sympathise with him when you look at all the other people it has affected. The staff at his yard will now have to look after and train the horses without Elliot’s presence, and any association with the yard will be severely tainted for a long time. Not to mention the serious financial ramifications of his actions, with two sponsors already pulling funding and others likely to follow suit.
There’s never a good time for news like this to come out, but the timing will not aide the Cheltenham Festival at a point where they needed this year’s event to go as smoothly as possible. After all, it was this time last year that the festival was being tipped, inconclusively, as having been one of the ‘super-spreaders’ of Covid-19. Despite the lack of conclusiveness as to whether it was or wasn’t, the mere mention of it this time last year was a cue for tutting and shaking heads; so they really could’ve done with no bad press this time around.
The Cheltenham Festival is obviously not the reason behind Gordon Elliot’s actions, or even why the news broke, but as with any issue that the public has with horse racing, all the negativity and scepticism will be deflected towards the nearest upcoming event. It is a tough one to take for an industry that contributes nearly £3.5bn to the UK economy, but after this latest catastrophe it will be interesting to see how the numbers differ over the course of the Cheltenham Festival.