Cheltenham Festival: three pictures show the difference a year makes

Annual UK horse-racing jamboree was a Covid super spreader in 2020

Allmankind ridden by jockey Harry Skelton (right) alongside Captain Guinness and Rachael Blackmore clear a fence during the Sporting Life Arkle Challenge Trophy Novices' Chase during day one of the Cheltenham Festival at Cheltenham Racecourse. Picture date: Tuesday March 16, 2021. PA Photo. See PA Story RACING Cheltenham. Photo credit should read: David Davies/PA Wire for the Jockey Club.

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When Rachael Blackmore and her horse Honeysuckle crossed the line to win Tuesday's Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham, she became the first woman jockey to do so in race history.

Last year, her win would have been greeted by roars that would have echoed round the Cotswolds. This year, with crowds banned due to Covid restrictions, the response to her triumph was more of a docile ripple.

The lack of spectators may have made for a less thrilling festival, but considering Cheltenham 2020 was called a 'Covid super spreader', festival organisers will accept the trade off.

Cheltenham 2020 v 2021: three contrasting pictures

As these three very different pictures show, the chances of a similarly grim outcome this year are, thankfully, slim.




Why did Cheltenham 2020 go ahead?

On February 13, 2020, the UK's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies convened to discuss whether large football crowds and other mass events had the potential to act as Covid super spreaders.

The syllogism seemed undeniable: lots of people packed together plus a respiratory virus that thrives on close contact equals the potential for lots of transmission.

Bafflingly, the experts decided it wasn't so incontrovertible, concluding that “there is no current evidence to suggest prevention of mass gatherings is effective in limiting transmission”.

The decision paved the way for the continuation of fans at football matches until March 13 and, most notoriously, Cheltenham's annual equine jamboree.

Taking place between March 10-13, it was attended by about 125,000 people.

On March 16, three days after the crowds had dispersed, new modelling from Imperial College London prompted a screeching about-face on the prudence of allowing mass gatherings.

One week later, on March 23, the UK was pitched into its first lockdown.

For the majority of people who had looked on from a social distance at the expectorant-filled race course, the news that mass gatherings had the potential to accelerate Covid's spread came as no surprise.

The risk at mass gatherings was no greater or less than it would have been in pubs or restaurants

However, it seemed to catch UK culture minister Oliver Dowden, the man who allowed Cheltenham to go ahead, on the hop.

“The risk at mass gatherings was no greater or less than it would have been in pubs or restaurants, and the advice at that point was that we did not need to ban mass gatherings," he said in April last year.

That same month, mortality figures compiled by the Health Service Journal showed that hospitals in the NHS trust that covers Cheltenham had recorded 125 Covid deaths, about double the death toll in neighbouring hospital trusts.

Given the number of variables involved, the link between Cheltenham and these data can only ever be anecdotal.

However, bar some fleeting interludes, UK fans have not been allowed to assemble in sporting stadia since.