My passport is sitting pretty in my bedside locker. It should be in the outside pocket of my suitcase like it has been on this day for the last 18 years. This is usually the day I regret not being able to iron my shirts or fold my clothes, it’s a day I always say I should have been forced to learn some more domestic duties when I was younger. A couple of half folded shirts, wrapped around a lump of sterling, stuffed into a suitcase really shouldn’t be anything to be proud of, but for Cheltenham week anything goes.

The greatest show on earth kicks off on Tuesday but unfortunately for me and tens of thousands of others the annual pilgrimage won’t be happening. If you haven’t been to Cheltenham, it’s probably very hard to comprehend just what it means to racing fans. I love all sports and have been very fortunate to attend many big sporting events in my life but nothing quite compares to Cheltenham. It’s a place that makes grown men cry with glee and agony, it can make you or break you, it definitely will leave you with memories of a lifetime for good or for bad, and the only guarantee you get is that when the last race of the week has been ran on the Friday, you will be gasping for more. It’s the greatest roller coaster of them all.

The atmosphere is electric. I still remember the eruption when Sprinter Sacre won his second Champion Chase, from the minute he turned in the noise was incredible. The grandstand literally shook. Hats and newspapers were flung into the air and my ears were not the better from the wall of noise that hit them for hours. I remember the time Annie Power ‘bit the dust’ at the last when going to win the mares hurdle, the roar was enormous as she turned in, then the gasp of 50,000 spectators’ as she fell at the last, followed by complete silence. It was surreal. That’s what Cheltenham does. It’s a place that could tame lions.

There will be no pilgrimage this year. For me personally it’s a disappointment but for many others it’s a whole pile worse. I feel really sorry for owner’s, the life blood of the racing industry. A personal friend, Cathal McHugh has a rags to riches story with his mare Skyace in the Mares Novice Hurdle next week. A once in a life time opportunity to be going to Cheltenham with a real chance. They have been robbed of the chance to experience something money can’t buy. I know they’ll make the most of the situation they find themselves in, but I really feel for them. If the mare wins they’ll celebrate in the pub in Abu Dhabi for a week. If she won and the lads were in Cheltenham they would make a movie about them!

I feel desperate for my UK counterparts, the on course bookmakers in Cheltenham. Many have remortgaged houses etc. to buy their racecourse pitch. The action will go ahead without them next week, yet they will be left with nothing but bills as their livelihoods have been decimated. People have forgotten about them but I really hope they are okay and will be back soon. Their treatment by governments and racing governing bodies for the last 12 months has been nothing short of a disgrace. They have been abandoned. The nature of their job will ensure public sympathy is in short supply, but these are real people who I am sure have had plenty of sleepless nights over the last 12 months. I hope to see as many of them back doing what they do best in the near future. They are an integral part of the racing industry.

Amateur riders have been ruled out of this year’s festival. Another outrageous nonsensical rule in a year where we have experienced so many nonsensical rules in everyday life. The simple facts are that Codd, Mullins, O’Connor etc. are better than many of the riders that will be allowed to participate next week. It will be a tough week for them next week watching on from afar. How it was allowed get to this I’m not sure but it’s another example of poor leadership from governing bodies in horseracing. Somebody’s dream of riding a festival winner will be snatched from them and in my opinion its very unfair.

Next week will be bitter sweet for racing fans. Betting shops and pubs will be closed, the banter, atmosphere and enjoyment away from the track will be missing.  While it’s good to have the racing to look forward to I can’t help but feel it will be an anti-climax. Last year the festival was heavily criticised for taking place despite having government approval. It’s a prime example of people having a lash at the sport when an opportunity arises but I guess we are used to it at this stage. This year our traditions, identity and rituals have been taken away from us.

As I type this piece the declarations for day one have been released. Eight in the Supreme Novice, a handful in the Arkle and an underwhelming card apart from the Champion Hurdle. It’s hard to blame owners. They can’t attend, and if they can’t attend the meeting the enjoyment factor is gone. If they haven’t a favourites chance, it’s probably not worth their while for Irish horses travelling and UK based owner’s will hope they can attend the Aintree meeting in April so may prefer to wait until then.  

So it’s the big week of the year but not the week as we know it. Personally, I would take my chances with covid and go to Cheltenham rather than continue the way we have for the last 12 months. Some may call it reckless, others will call it selfish but I would call it living. How much longer are we going to be like this? You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.

Finally, to the action on the track and back to the Champion Hurdle, good ground, ten runners and a guaranteed quick pace. I think this is the year Sharjah might just finally get the respect he deserves. 14/1 is a massive price, a lot more will finish behind him than in front of him.

There will be no opening roar, no bookmakers shouting the odds, no newspapers in the air, no colour, flare or glamour, no elated victorious jockey saluting to packed grandstands, no joyous scenes from connections in the winner’s enclosure, the Guinness village wont exist and we won’t get to meet old friends on our annual trip. It will be the Cheltenham Festival in name only.     

Enjoy the action wherever you are watching from, best of luck and happy punting.

All the best,