Crowds at Cheltenham 'very much in hands of government' as new season nears

Cheltenham's first meeting since the Festival in March which ended just before the nationwide lockdown is "very much in the hands of the government" over how many people can attend, the track has said.

Racecourse supremo Ian Renton is hoping for an extension of the sports pilot event scheme allowing larger crowds, but remains cautious in the light of test events taking place before then.

Crucial test events at Warwick and Newmarket's Cambridgeshire meeting are scheduled for next week. Meanwhile, talks at Cheltenham are ongoing with various authorities to see if any crowd could be on course for the traditional October meeting.

Racing returns to Cheltenham for the first time since the festival in March for the two-day fixture starting on October 23 and Renton, Jockey Club Racecourses' regional director for Cheltenham and the South West, said: "We're very much in the hands of the government and we've all seen some of the messages coming out of potential restrictions if numbers are allowed at all."

Following the Festival the government came under fire for allowing the meeting to go ahead and culture secretary Oliver Dowden publicly defended the decision. The four-day festival began on March 10 with additional hygiene measures before the government issued a ban on mass gatherings. Ten days after it ended, the nationwide lockdown was announced. 

Renton added: "We're confident of the Showcase meeting going ahead behind closed doors with owners present and that's what we certainly anticipate being able to do, but we'll continue to talk to the various authorities to see if we can have any improvement on that.

"We're preparing for every eventuality. If we can have larger crowds then absolutely we'll be able to prepare for that, but it's one of those years where you have to look at every conceivable option and be able to manage whatever that may be.

"I'm hopeful there will be an extension of pilot schemes or something similar that allow larger racecourses to have proper trials with more meaningful crowds than 1,000 people."

Ascot is similarly awaiting the government's verdict on crowds at sports events beyond this month's pilot tests with Nick Smith, director of racing and communications at the Berkshire course, believing the sport is well represented in ongoing discussions.

A two-day fixture takes place at Ascot on October 2-3 before Qipco British Champions Day on October 17.

Smith said: "Until the trials are complete and the government have managed to clarify what the rules are going to be for sports crowds then we're waiting in the wings for instructions.

"There's always plans in place, including for our meeting at the start of next month, should we be allowed to host a crowd, but we're waiting on the government. It certainly would be possible to set the site up zonally and for limited numbers, but there's no detailed plan as yet and we're expecting some clarity in the next few days.

"The DCMS meetings with Oliver Dowden are ongoing and Annamarie Phelps has been involved with those, so we're well represented with the BHA and RCA at government level and awaiting news."