Racegoers looking to the future will be delighted that Cheltenham Racecourse is opening its doors to punters at the Showcase Meeting today.
Around 12,000 are expected to attend this afternoon’s card, while a further 16,000 people are anticipated for day two on Saturday. That scale will give venue officials the perfect opportunity to see how their new safety measures stack up with a real crowd, and identify any changes that may need to be made.
If all goes to plan, preparations for the Cheltenham Festival – to be held, as ever, in March – will ramp up rather nicely.
The 2020/21 season was held pretty much exclusively behind closed doors, and while that would have hit punters who love a day out at Prestbury Park hard, the financial implications for the racecourse could have been terminal.
Happily, the return to action has ensured the immediate future of the venue, and while the situation with the pandemic is fluid the hope is that a sizable crowd – if not even full capacity – will be allowed to return to Cheltenham in 2022.
The Festival needs its spectators, as the famous ‘Cheltenham roar’ – and the atmosphere that punters help to create – is integral to the action. What a shame it was to see Rachael Blackmore, who will have changed the face of horse racing forever with her 2021 successes, have to celebrate in front of empty grandstands….a point confirmed by the Ian Renton, the Jockey Club regional managing director responsible for the west of England.
“Anyone who has been here will understand what an iconic sporting arena it is, and it simply hasn’t been the same without spectators,” he confirmed.
“Not only is this an exciting time for us as the jump season begins to pick up momentum, but the Showcase Meeting feels extra-special this year as it’s wonderful to be able to welcome racing fans back to Cheltenham.”
Low Numbers But No Need to Fear
While there will be plenty of punters watching on from trackside, the numbers of horses on the turf will be the lowest for this meeting in six years.
Only 67 declarations have been made for the six-race card, which falls around 25% lower than the 88 that turned out for the Friday of the Showcase Meeting in 2018.
However, a change in broadcasting – only ITV 4 are on duty today, as opposed to the main ITV channel tomorrow – has caused a move around in the schedule, with some of the bigger handicap races moved to Saturday.
It means that Friday’s card is dominated by novice races, of which four over hurdles and fences have attracted an average of just six horses between them.
“You’d almost expect it [smaller fields], especially in the Class 2 and Class 3 novice races here and particularly in this transition period between the summer jumpers and the proper winter horses coming out,” the clerk of the course at Cheltenham, Simon Claisse, reflected.
“It’s always a quieter spell, and we’ve seen it elsewhere in jumping in the last couple of weeks.”
Claisse also confirmed that the Showcase Meeting would be his penultimate in the role, with Jon Pullin expected to take over in full from December.