Rewind to 2001 when there was no festival at all
INSIDE YOUR ULTIMATE GUIDE
IT MIGHT not be the Cheltenham Festival as we know it but it will nevertheless be the Cheltenham Festival when the runners line up for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle on March 16. The same could not be said 20 years ago when Prestbury Park lay empty to all, with no festival of any description to retrace from 2001. It was cancelled at the hands of a disease that devastated British agriculture, an appalling outbreak of foot and mouth that meant more than six million sheep, cattle and pigs were slaughtered in what was a disaster for rural communities. Racing, as a rural sport, was also halted between February 28 and March 6 in Britain but, after government advice suggested there was little chance of the sport contributing to any spreading of the disease, it resumed with an all-weather meeting at Lingfield on March 7. All horses, humans and vehicles were required to undergo enhanced disinfection procedures but it at least gave hope that the festival could take place in its usual home in the middle of March. Later the very same day those hopes were dashed for good. A change in government protocols prevented tracks staging fixtures if farm animals had been on racecourse land within 28 days of a meeting. As 23 sheep had been grazing at Cheltenham until February 14, the festival in its usual spot was cancelled. On the Tuesday that ought to have been the opening day of the 2001 Cheltenham Festival there was no racing from Cheltenham but there was racing on Fibresand at Southwell. Hope remained for the festival, with April 17, 18 and 19 mooted as a potential date, albeit almost certainly without any participation from Irish horses or racegoers due to strict measures put in place by Ireland’s government. However, on April 1 there was a confirmed case of foot and mouth close to Cheltenham, meaning the racecourse was immediately placed in an exclusion zone and the 2001 festival was off for good. Instead, Sandown’s two-day season-ending finale staged replacement contests for Cheltenham’s four championship races – the Gold Cup, Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase and Stayers’ Hurdle. The four substitute prizes were won by Marlborough, Landing Light, Edredon Bleu and Baracouda, but while Edredon Bleu was typically heroic in a tight finish and Baracouda as suave as ever, the races hardly carried the same kudos associated with the ‘big four’ at Cheltenham in March. Arguably the biggest equine casualty of the foot and mouth outbreak was Istabraq, the supreme hurdler who had the race been run and had the Irish participated, would have been destined to become the first four-time winner of the Champion Hurdle. The then nine-year-old, trained by Aidan O’brien and owned by JP Mcmanus, was odds-on for the feature race of the opening day and rated far superior to any of his potential opponents. As he had shown over the past three years, he was untouchable at his peak. Come 2002, the festival returned and so did Istabraq, but his moment had passed and he was found to be lame behind after Charlie Swan pulled him up after jumping only two hurdles. It was an undignified end to the career of one of Cheltenham’s favourite sons, who was denied a fair crack at history.