Cheltenham Festival was last year labelled a superspreader event but pandemic restrictions mean that next week, the highlight of the British jump racing calendar will be held in front of empty stands with spectators forced to watch at home and place bets online.
In a normal year, the four-day meeting attracts 65,000 spectators a day with punters gambling hundreds of millions of pounds at the track, online and in betting shops.
This year Cheltenham will host a few hundred trainers, jockeys and their staff, alongside a catering team of 40 rather than the usual 4,000. The local Gloucestershire economy stands to miss out on £100m, while betting shops across the country remain closed.
“Being there next week is going to be very weird, it’ll be spooky,” said Nicky Henderson, the trainer of 68 festival winners. “It’s the biggest four days of the year . . . but the stands will be empty.”
British racing has lost more than £300m in revenue in the pandemic, according to consultancy Oakwell Sports Advisory. The Jockey Club, which owns Cheltenham racecourse and other tracks across the UK, lost out on £90m of revenue last year, though said it has not been forced to tap the £600m state bailout for sport.
This year Cheltenham is relying on broadcast partner ITV to help mitigate the blow of no spectators and to draw in punters.
“Betting revenue is bound to be down,” said Henderson. “That’s why television is vitally important . . . I suspect the television figures will be dramatically increased.” Cheltenham attracted a peak audience of almost 1.4m viewers in 2020 with the ITV deal worth £8m-£9m a year for racing.
Punters wagered roughly £500m in shops, online and at Cheltenham racecourse itself in 2020, according to Warwick Bartlett, chief executive of Global Betting and Gaming Consultants. But online will not make up for the absence of racegoers, he said, and expects that figure to drop £100m this year.
Nonetheless, he predicted that “internet gambling will be the racing and betting industries’ saviour”.
The amount bet in shops, online and at Cheltenham racecourse itself last year
An adviser to a large gambling group said that racing had performed well for betting companies during lockdown, adding that Cheltenham’s biggest punters had placed their bets “weeks, if not months ago”.
As Cheltenham has approached, Julie Harrington, who in January took over as chief executive of the British Horseracing Authority, the sport’s national body, has warned the industry faces “existential crisis”.
After last year being blamed for accelerating the spread of covid, this month racing was under scrutiny over animal welfare after photographs of Grand National-winning trainer Gordon Elliott sitting on a dead horse went viral.
Harrington said she was concerned about the impact of such incidents, particularly on young people, whom she described as the “owners and spectators of the future”. She sees next week’s meeting a chance to show racing at its best.
Some in the industry share her anxiety. Simon Bazalgette, former chief executive of The Jockey Club, emphasised that horse welfare should be a priority, with the best way to rebuild trust being to “deal with it strongly [and] be up front about it”.
Harrington also admitted concerns over claims surrounding Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the billionaire ruler of Dubai and owner of the Godolphin stable. He is under scrutiny over allegations that one of his daughters is being held hostage in the emirate though his family say they are caring for her at home. Godolphin and Dubai’s government did not respond to requests for comment.
Sheikh Mohammed is one of the most important figures in horseracing. His global Godolphin operation has more than 1,000 horses, according to its website, including its 115-horse stables in Newmarket. Godolphin was the top purchaser at the past two Tattersall sales, the annual UK auction of budding racehorses, spending £35m.
“You would always be apprehensive about the impact on big participants in the sport about this kind of negative publicity,” said Bazalgette. “But I have every confidence the sport is pretty robust . . . it’s not all dependent on one owner.”
The industry has also grown nervous over the impact of an upcoming review of UK gambling law, which it hopes will include changes to “the levy”, through which horseracing groups are paid the proceeds of a tax on bookmakers’ gross profit.
The BHA is urging reform of the levy, which generated £83m in the year ended March 2019, as it seeks to boost income in the wake of the pandemic. One option would be to tax bookmakers’ turnover rather than gross profit. The Horserace Betting Levy Board has said previously that gross profit is “difficult to forecast accurately”.
The BHA also sounded the alarm this year when the Gambling Commission, a regulator, raised the idea of affordability checks on gamblers. The BHA claimed the move could cost racing £60m a year.
“It’s been a very tough year for everybody, of course it has, but we’ve had tough years before,” said Henderson, pointing to how the foot-and-mouth outbreak in 2001 and bomb scares had disrupted racing in the past. “There’s all sorts of things that can come and bite you in the face.”