|Dates: 16-19 March Venue: Cheltenham Racecourse Races: 13:20-16:50 GMT Main race: 15:05|
|Coverage: Commentaries on BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra, feature races Radio 5 live. Racecards, live text, results & reports on the BBC Sport website and app.|
A town normally in carnival mode is eerily quiet. Where banners and marquees should herald the boisterous crowds to come, there is calm.
For four days in March, the Cheltenham Festival usually welcomes thousands of visitors for its annual carnival.
This year is different – no spectators or racehorse owners and a sport seeking a boost after negative headlines.
Racing fans will look to the likes of Honeysuckle, Chacun Pour Soi, Paisley Park and Al Boum Photo for that lift.
Organisers hope for some good news from a meeting which was the last major UK sporting event to be staged before the first coronavirus lockdown 12 months ago and comes in the wake of trainer Gordon Elliott’s six-month ban after being pictured sitting astride a dead horse.
Victory for the unbeaten mare Honeysuckle on Tuesday would earn Rachael Blackmore a place in folklore as the first woman to ride the Champion Hurdle winner.
Her rivals include last year’s victor Epatante and the beaten Triumph Hurdle favourite Goshen, whose presence completes a circle of contrasts from 12 months ago.
On the final day of Cheltenham 2020, jockey Jamie Moore had to be consoled after runaway leader Goshen dramatically unseated him at the final flight to gasps from the 70,000 crowd.
This time the televised roar that traditionally greets the first race will be a recorded version. There will be hundreds in attendance – jockeys, trainers, officials and a limited number of media – whereas last year’s total numbers topped 250,000.
“We’re looking forward to what will be a very different Festival,” said racecourse boss Ian Renton.
What are the week’s other potential big stories?
- Denise ‘Sneezy’ Foster: Taken over the reins while Elliott serves his suspension. The former riding instructor worked with top showjumpers earlier in her life. She is known as Sneezy because that is how friends pronounced her name as a child.
- Rising equine stars: Shishkin is the favourite for Tuesday’s Arkle Chase, while Envoi Allen and Monkfish run later in the week and are talked of as future Gold Cup contenders.
- Purple reign: The 2019 winner Paisley Park, named after Prince’s recording studio, is looking to regain his title after successfully recovering from a heart scare. Owner Andrew Gemmell, who has been blind since birth, will be following from home.
- Golden treble? Al Boum Photo, trained by Willie Mullins, bids on Friday to become the first horse since Best Mate in 2004 to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup three times. Blackmore is on A Plus Tard while Bryony Frost rides Frodon as they seek to become the first female jockey to triumph.
What about those headlines?
Last year’s meeting attracted criticism for continuing while the coronavirus crisis was in its early stages.
Organisers maintain they followed government advice, point to other sporting fixtures which took place that week, and that the first lockdown was not introduced until 10 days later.
Animal welfare is also in the spotlight after the Elliott case and a ban for jockey Rob James who was seen mounting a dead horse in a video on social media.
“The images shown in recent weeks on mainstream media are damaging, and we really need to redouble efforts to build that public trust and show them horse welfare is at centre of everything we do,” British Horseracing Authority chief executive Julie Harrington told the BBC’s Dan Roan.
Three horses suffered fatal injuries at last year’s meeting and Cheltenham chiefs will be hoping all horses and riders come back safely.
They may be helped by fewer runners, with a combination of lockdown rules and new Brexit regulations dissuading some Irish trainers and owners from sending horses over.
What will the meeting look like?
Lateral flow tests and temperature checks form part of a series of coronavirus protocols for those attending.
There will be about 40 catering staff on site, compared with 4,000 in previous years. There will be no bookmakers and betting shops are closed, but millions will still be wagered by punters from home.
Special areas have been created to minimise mixing of jockeys and trainers – with a red zone for the home contingent and green zone for Irish visitors.
There are two separate stable yards and stewards’ rooms, with most stable staff housed in 104 temporary en-suite units in the Best Mate Enclosure, and not allowed to leave the area outside of racing.
Irish jockeys and trainers and staff are being regularly tested before arriving in the UK and isolation units will be available should there be any positive cases.
Several Festival-winning jockeys miss out as amateur riders are not allowed to compete under the current Covid-19 rules in England. Patrick Mullins, Jamie Codd, Derek O’Connor and Sam Waley-Cohen will all be on the sidelines.