CHELTENHAM is a quiet town in the Cotswolds that will be in the news again this week. Exactly a year ago, the world changed in a way none of us could imagine and Cheltenham was thrown into the spotlight as the horseracing Festival became the ultimate spreader event for a virus we were only just beginning to understand.
In a normal year, and the first half of March last year was still a normal year, 250,000 racegoers fill the town (population 116,000), many coming over from Ireland, to see the likes of Arkle, Dawn Run and Desert Orchid.
Cars are parked on every street within a mile of Prestbury Park, and after the last race the pubs and bars are swamped.
Cheltenham is largely known as a posh spa town, with good schools and a racecourse.
Composer Gustav Holst was born there and it is also the birth and resting place of the founder member of the Rolling Stones, Brian Jones, who was buried in Prestbury in 1969.
If you grow up in Cheltenham, as I did, the Festival is part of your DNA, such is its domination of the town every March, and everybody has a story about race week.
The Gold Cup itself would be on display in the town for weeks before the event, the Queen Mother might stop in Prestbury village and go walkabout on her way to watch the Champion Chase (named after her in 1980) and us kids used to bunk off school, find a gap in the fence and spend an afternoon at the race course.
If the gap in the fence took you into the wrong enclosure, you had to get out fast because teens in their school uniform were rather conspicuous among the top hats and tails and astonishing number of empty champagne bottles.
You’d be thrown out on your ear but nothing more. It was nothing like the state of the art facility it is now, following the £45m redevelopment five years ago.
Last year, Cheltenham and Liverpool both saw spikes in the death rates in early and mid April; Cheltenham because of the racing and Liverpool after 3,000 Atletico Madrid fans were allowed to travel for the Champions League on March 11th, three days before Spain went into lockdown.
A month later, Professor Tim Spector of King’s College London, and inventor of the Covid Symptom Study app, said that this match and the Cheltenham Festival had “caused increased suffering and death that wouldn’t otherwise have occurred”.
This year there will be no-one except the horses, of course, and their entourage, which will come as a blessed relief to those residents who shut themselves away and answer the door to no one, and catastrophic for the local community that benefits to the tune of £100m from the Festival each year.
The economic impact is felt not just from the hospitality sector, but by thousands of residents who rent rooms in their houses and car parking spaces on their driveway for a small fortune.
Like the rest of the sporting calendar, the racing will go ahead with the showpiece event, the Gold Cup, taking place next Friday, the last of the four days of racing.
Al Boum Photo is looking for a third victory in a row.
In 97 years of racing only four horses have won it three or more times, but its awful play-on-words name and paucity of high-quality competition are unlikely to make it a fan favourite.
But horse racing isn’t the only sport in town. A little over a mile down the Prestbury Road is the Johnny-Rocks Stadium, the home of Cheltenham Town FC. Formed in 1887, the club finally hit the big time in 1999, entering what is now League 2, which has been their home ever since, except for one season back in the Conference and four glorious seasons in League 1.
Since their historic game against Man City in the FA Cup 4th round on January 23rd, where Cheltenham led for 80 minutes, the Robins have taken 19 points from a possible 24.
As the team head to Exeter for today’s fixture, they are top of the table under manager and ex-Cheltenham player Michael Duff, himself from Northern Ireland.
Duff was a dominant centre-half when the club went from the Southern League Premier to League 2 in five years under influential manager Steve Cotterill and is therefore well placed to guide them up again.
Whatever the result in the Gold Cup or at the end of the football season, the high point for Cheltenham will remain Cleeve Hill, the 330m summit that provides a bucolic backdrop to both Prestbury Park and Whadden Road.