Day 1 at Cheltenham attracts 60K despite virus

Horse Racing

CHELTENHAM, England — A crowd of more than 60,000 attended the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival, where more wash basins and hand sanitizer stations were in place to help combat the virus outbreak.

The total of 60,664 racegoers on Tuesday was around 7,000 fewer than the record number present for Day 1 of the famous meeting 12 months ago, but aggregate crowds across the four days were still expected to top 250,000.

Ian Renton, regional head of racing at Jockey Club Racecourses, said organizers were “very happy” with the crowd “considering the uncertainty of the last fortnight.”

“We have been liaising very closely with the government over the last fortnight and listening to them and listening to their advice,” he said, referring to the coronavirus outbreak that has caused many sporting events to be canceled or take place without fans, “and they have been extremely helpful in telling us what they believe is the right thing to do.

“They want business to continue as usual in this country and sporting events such as this that take place. So we have put a lot of precautions in place, in terms of ensuring racegoers have access to soap and water and can follow government advice on hygiene.”

Jockeys were briefed by staff at the course about the importance of hygiene and also recognizing any potential symptoms.

“There are extra hand sanitizers in there and signs about,” said Robbie Power, a veteran of the weighing room. “Everyone will just be giving thumbs-up instead of shaking hands.

What started as a day to forget for trainer Nicky Henderson quickly turned into one to savor, with Epatante securing him a record-extending eighth win in the Champion Hurdle, the signature race.

Having been forced to rule star horse Altior out of his bid for a third Champion Chase — the top race on Wednesday — before setting off in the morning, it was going to take something special to lift the spirits of the Henderson.

Shishkin went some way to achieving that in winning the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, before Epatante further softened the blow by winning as the 2-1 favorite.

Henderson is now on 66 career winners at the festival, one ahead of Willie Mullins.

“That was a bruising blow to leave Altior, your linchpin, at home, but he is in safe hands and we will have him back,” Henderson said.

“In the meantime we have got to get on with what we have got . it is a good start and there is a long way to go, but you would settle for this any day of your life.”

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