Crowds packed the Cheltenham Festival on Tuesday following a year when racing’s Olympics was staged behind closed doors due to Covid.
Two years ago Cheltenham's owners - the Jockey Club - came in for severe criticism for staging the meeting just as coronavirus was taking a grip as it was labelled a super spreader.
Two years on and the gates opened to a cheer, and the famous roar once again greeted the first race, the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, won by Nicky Henderson’s Constitution Hill.
The trainer said: “It’s just nice to be back here, with all these people. The atmosphere is great and it means a lot to us.”
The feature race of the day, the Champion Hurdle, went the way of Honeysuckle, just like last year – and this time jockey Rachael Blackmore was given a huge ovation and cheer rather than returning to a deserted paddock.
“Last year was fantastic and we were delighted to be here, but Cheltenham is about the people and they really didn’t let us down,” said Blackmore, wearing a yellow and blue armband in support of Ukraine.
“It was some feeling jumping the last and hearing the crowd. It’s just an incredible place.”
Winning trainer Henry de Bromhead also felt the mare deserved her moment in the spotlight in front of an admiring crowd, who even gave her three cheers on her return after making 15 wins from 15 hurdles races.
“It is unbelievable. It is better than last year with the crowd here. It’s amazing. It is a never ending fairytale. It is incredible,” he said.
“I just really hoped that she could get that Cheltenham roar and it is fantastic that she has got it."
Ian Renton, regional director for Jockey Club racecourses, also hailed the crowd’s return and a new opening-day record of 68,567.
“It’s wonderful to see the racegoers back and they’ve all arrived with a smile on their faces having missed last year.”
He added: “It’s a lovely atmosphere. We think the crowd is between 68-69,000, a record crowd for the first day and they’ve enjoyed it.
“This place needs people, it didn’t feel right last year. The atmosphere makes the Festival, that’s no secret.”