Punters fear Cheltenham Festival will fall victim to coronavirus outbreak

Chris Cook
Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Gamblers believe the Cheltenham Festival is at serious risk of being postponed or abandoned as fear of the spread of coronavirus begins to seep into the world of British horse racing. A betting market opened online by Betfair this week offers punters the chance to bet on whether the highlight of the jumps racing season will go ahead on 10 March, with ‘No’ trading at 3-1 on Wednesday morning, albeit after just £20,000 had been traded.

That means punters believe there is a more obvious chance of the Festival’s first day being postponed than of the Champion Hurdle being won by the favourite, Epatante, a 7-2 shot. Racing’s leaders, however, take a cooler view of the risk presented by the virus; as at Wednesday morning, the only decision taken specifically because of the threat was to establish a coronavirus steering group including representatives of the British Horseracing Authority, racecourses and horsemen.

Related: Talking Horses: Epatante still the pick of Henderson's Hurdle contenders

The steering group convened for the first time by conference call last week and were speaking again on Wednesday morning. The briefing from officials is that the sport is on a “watching and monitoring” brief, being prepared to take its cue from government if the situation in Britain should deteriorate.

A Betfair podcast released on Tuesday extracted some comment from Nick Rust, chief executive of the British Horseracing Authority, who was quoted as saying: “In terms of potential ramifications for the Festival, any decision that impacts on it taking place will not be a decision that racing makes, but rather the government. In the event that the Cheltenham Festival was postponed either in its entirety or in part for any reason, there are contingencies already in place to re-stage it later in the season.”

Those contingencies, it is understood, were in place well before the present crisis arose. A meeting on Monday between the BHA executive and Cheltenham racecourse staff was also a long-standing, annual arrangement rather than a response to the virus, although its potential impact was discussed.

However, the official position is that nothing has changed, yet. “It remains full speed ahead for the Festival in a fortnight’s time,” said a statement from the Jockey Club, which owns Cheltenham racecourse. “Racing continues to liaise closely with the government to stay on top of the situation, and we are looking forward to four fantastic days of racing.”

The virus has proliferated in parts of Asia, Europe and the Middle East in recent days. Six top-flight football games are to be played behind closed doors this weekend in Italy, which has reported 10 deaths and more than 300 cases of the virus. As at Tuesday night, 13 people had tested positive for coronavirus in the UK but had not suffered any major setback to their health as a result.