Should the 2020 Cheltenham Festival have gone ahead? This question has taxed a significant number of commentators and sections of the public ever since it finished on March 13th.

Since the Festival was given the green light to go-ahead, the UK government, owners and organisers of the Cheltenham Festival have faced serious criticism and a media backlash for allowing the event to take place. This led to a huge reaction after TV host Piers Morgan accused the government of ‘actively encouraging’ people to attend large gatherings as the coronavirus worsened, this came not long after Dr Hilary said "it was a human soup and a disaster waiting to many people would have been infected."

Viewers were quick to react after hearing this and asked Piers Morgan via Twitter on why he singled out Cheltenham saying: "What about the number of people who visited Crufts over 4 days, Piers?". It is worth noting that the Cheltenham Festival wasn’t the only large gathering that had taken place that week. A big red flat that jumps out is the 5,000 Atletico Madrid fans that travelled to Liverpool for their Champions League Quarter Final clash on March 11th which proved to be the last major football fixture to take place in England.

According to The Jockey Club statistics, over the course of the four days, the number of attendees was 251,684. Following consultation with authorities, health and safety guidelines were put in place by The Jockey Club who introduced special measures for the meeting, promoting the public health advice with extra hand sanitiser dispensers and wash stations including basins that were fitted around the racecourse to try to give the public some sort of protection to help prevent the spread of infection. The Jockey Club also insisted they followed clear guidance from the government and science experts.

Jockey Harry Cobden provided more of an update on the current situation at the time by saying "The doctors, as you would expect, are taking it all very seriously and if anyone does have any symptoms we are to report them straight away.” Not only was Harry Cobden reassured by the medical staff but all other jockeys were briefed by staff at the course to aware them of any potential symptoms and importance of hygiene.

The Cheltenham Festival proved to be the last major sport event to take place in Britain because just three days after the festival concluded, Boris Johnson announced the ban of large gatherings and a week later the whole nation entered full lockdown. Only a week or two passed and many racegoers claimed online that they had contracted the virus from the Cheltenham Festival having felt unwell since it concluded.

This brought huge concerns and questions towards Cheltenham organisers as to why they didn’t follow the lead of other countries in postponing the major event to prevent the spread with one critic warning and describing the situation as “a ticking time bomb.”

Despite the Covid-19 virus spreading quickly throughout the country, the UK government defended its decision to let the Cheltenham Festival go-ahead whilst other countries such as Ireland began its shutdown saying that they had taken the right decision at the right time, that they did not need to ban large gatherings and mentioning that there were no UK casualties at the time, so they were keen to continue business as usual.

A leaked piece of data found by a reporter showed that the local postcode of the surroundings of the racecourse reported the highest number of coronavirus admissions in Gloucestershire up to April 3rd. An image below demonstrates that GL52 which covers two or three areas of north Cheltenham including Prestbury had 27 confirmed hospital admissions followed by postcode GL51 that had 21 in total and this could be classed as the virus hotspot as both postcodes made up nearly a quarter of county-wide hospital admissions as of the date mentioned.

More confirmed cases will undoubtedly have led to more fatalities. So the four-day meeting must have played a part in accelerating the spread of the disease. Evidence showed that March 13th saw 13 people infected with the disease across Gloucestershire. Fast-forward to May 15th, and Gloucestershire reached over 1,300 confirmed cases with more than 214 people, unfortunately, losing their lives. It was also reported on May 8th that Gloucestershire had one of the highest rates of infection in the UK

My final thoughts

There are a few things that I want to give my personal opinions on about this controversial subject. Firstly, there is no doubt that everyone including myself was very pleased for the Cheltenham Festival 2020 to have gone ahead despite the concerns that prevailed at the time. It was clear to see that there were no social distancing terms advised, and the hygiene measures and advice from the health services at the racecourse was stricter than ever, there was plenty of notice advising the public to be careful around the racecourse and to wash their hands on a regular basis. People also had a responsibility not to go if they felt they had symptoms. But we all know that at the Cheltenham Festival, people are standing shoulder to shoulder in the stands and parade ring, and it is pretty much a scrum everywhere.

On the other hand, I genuinely believe that it was the correct decision to let Cheltenham go-ahead because the government because a ban of mass gatherings was not put in place, neither was social distancing. I am sure none of us would have expected the coronavirus to have turned into the complete catastrophe it has. In hindsight, the safest option would have been for the meeting go take place behind closed doors but the reality is we did not see this coming, especially in the way it has unfolded, otherwise it obviously wouldn't have gone ahead. Hindsight is a wonderful thing!

The Festival is massively important to Cheltenham as a whole and could account for up to 15% of the annual GDP of the town. It would have been a massive blow to 1,000’s of retailers, bar and restaurant owners, accommodation providers if it had been cancelled at such late notice. If the Festival had started 2 days later it would have been cancelled. If they had gone ‘behind closed doors mid-way through the week it would have just driven racegoers to congregate in the bars and hotels to watch the racing and this might have caused a bigger negative effect on the town than actually letting racing go ahead.

What are your thoughts? Was it the right decision for the Cheltenham Festival to have gone ahead and did it play a part in the spread of the virus? Let us know if you have anything you would like to say as we are intrigued to hear your opinion on this.

Best wishes,
The team at Cleeve


  1. John Cunliffe on May 21, 2020 at 6:17 pm

    Could the point be made that it was not 250,000 separate people as doubtless many people went on more than one day. As a guess I would say 100,000 different people, Remember it was the scientific advice at the time. I usually pick winners in hindsight !
    Personally ,I think ” herd immunity ” will prove the long term answer and one could argue that a lot of comparively young and fit people at Cheltenham and Liverpool all at once was a good idea !

  2. Ian Wright on May 21, 2020 at 7:05 pm

    Cheltenham is now being used as an easy excuse for what has amounted to criminal negligence by the government. It’s impossible to believe a single stat they produce, starting with the perennially disgraced Neil Ferguson’s model of 500,000 deaths. Anyone that wheezes or has a sniffle is classed as as a Covid19 death (I have personal experience of this). The FT have estimated that 65,000 people waiting for non Covid treatment have died because they can’t be seen or treated. Absolute disgrace and nothing to do with Cheltenham.

  3. Martin Clarke on May 23, 2020 at 8:18 am

    I took the decision not to travel to Cheltenham on the Wednesday before it started (being 70) and have not regretted that decision! However, friends I would have been with went but didn’t enter any bars or marquees: they have remained clear. But, an 85 year old friend did attended on all four days in a hospitality box, caught the virus and has recovered.
    Another couple I know, decided not to go but the following week attended a dinner party where all eight other quests there had attended the Festival; the eight all contracted the virus but my friends and the hosts did not.
    On balance I’m glad the Festival went ahead and very happy to have watch those races on TV. Statistics in the aftermath will show whether it was underlying causes or obesity that was the biggest killer, thankfully young people are fairly immune to the worst effects: they are our future.

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