Cheltenham Festival expected to be held behind closed doors with announcement set for as early as next week

CHELTENHAM chiefs have admitted defeat in the battle to have any significant crowds at this year's Festival.

At best, the March showpiece could welcome just 2000 paid-up punters each day.

The 2019 Festival was one of the last major sporting events to welcome a crowd before the national lockdown.

Racing resumed in June, but it has continued behind closed doors ever since with only a few pilot events and small crowds of up to 2000 in Tier 1 and 2 areas prior to Christmas.

But with the situation worsening throughout the country, Cheltenham Director Ian Renton has now admitted any hope of significant crowds this time round is dead in the water.

He told the Nick Luck Daily Podcast: "We've now come to accept that it's going to be a very, very different Festival.

"The team are now concentrating on just having the best possible racing, looking at everything we can do in terms of encouraging the right horses to be with us, perfect ground to ensure we can produce a perfect four days racing even if people will be viewing it on television rather than in person."

Asked if Cheltenham had given up preparing and hoping for a crowd, Renton added: "I think we will be parking that in the next week or two.

"We've been pretty realistic with our expectations over the last few months but as we get closer to the Festival those small bits of hope are fast disappearing.

"We will soon have to be wholly realistic and accept that at the very best very small numbers will be present.

"At the very least I would hope that we can have owners present and hopefully getting back to the days of December where we had a crowd totalling 2000 people on each of those days. That is the sort of expectation we're currently looking at."

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The continuation of racing behind closed doors is a big financial blow to the industry.

Luckily for Cheltenham the course has insurance to cover the brunt of the losses, but Renton explains that the situation has already cost the Jockey Club around £100 million.

He added: "Thankfully we have an insurance policy which remains in place for the upcoming Festival which covers the majority of our lost revenue.

"But there is a vast tranche which we will still fail to bring in and that is obviously very significant for the Jockey Club.

"We have seen in 2020 revenues reduced by nigh-on £100 million and those sorts of revenues will continue to be lost over the next few months as we continue to race behind closed doors and with betting shops closed."

There was better news for Irish trainers hoping to ensure they can bring their stars over for the four-day showpiece of jumps racing.

Renton was optimistic this wouldn't be an issue for the likes of Willie Mullins, Gordon Elliott and Henry De Bromhead as it was over Christmas.

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