'A lot of lives lost': Uproar over 250,000-strong event during virus crisis

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Racegoers, pictured here arriving during day four of the Cheltenham Festival at Cheltenham Racecourse.
Racegoers arrive during day four of the Cheltenham Festival at Cheltenham Racecourse. (Photo by Simon Cooper/PA Images via Getty Images)

Legendary jockey AP McCoy has criticised organisers of the Cheltenham racing festival for staging the annual event during the early stages of the coronavirus crisis.

The Cheltenham Festival - an iconic racing event that takes place over four days in Gloucestershire in the UK - was held from March 10 to 13 despite growing concerns over the outbreak of the virus.

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At the time, six people had died in Britain and 373 had tested positive for the virus. Italy was already in lockdown as the full extent of the crisis was starting to be realised.

Those figures have since rocketed to more than 10,600 dead and 84,000 cases in Britain.

Cheltenham Racecourse have defended the event by saying they followed all government advice, however racing pundit and former jockey McCoy believes the wrong decision was made.

“I suppose in hindsight, it’s always easy isn’t it,” McCoy, who rode 4358 winners throughout his illustrious career, said on Good Morning Britain on Monday.

Ruby Walsh, AP McCoy and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, pictured here at the Cheltenham Festival in March.
Ruby Walsh, AP McCoy and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall at the Cheltenham Festival. (Photo by Jacob King - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

“With Cheltenham they were following at the time the government guidelines.

“They were the ones that had asked for advice. I suppose that will be the same when we stopped and when do we go back – the same people will be making decisions.

“Look, the reality of it is that a lot of lives have been lost because of it. And who knows, when do we go back, is it too soon, or is it not too soon, if we lose more lives at the end of it all – I don’t know. Hindsight is a great thing – I think no one knows.”

McCoy later clarified that he was referring to the coronavirus crisis - not the Cheltenham Festival - when he said “a lot of lives have been lost because of it.”

“Don’t twist my words. I said ‘Lives have been lost’ referring to Covid-19, not the Cheltenham Festival,” he wrote on Twitter.

Some 250,000 racegoers packed the Cheltenham Racecourse across the four days, with some saying they believed they contracted the virus there.

Andrew Parker Bowles, ex-husband of the Duchess of Cornwall, comedian Lee Mack and West Bromwich Albion footballer Charlie Austin all said they believe they contracted Covid-19 at Cheltenham.

Lancashire County Cricket Club chairman David Hodgkiss died last month at 71 after contracting coronavirus.

Horse trainer and close friend Nicky Henderson said Hodgkiss was in attendance at Cheltenham two weeks earlier.

Organisers defend holding Cheltenham Festival

A spokesman for the Cheltenham Festival and organisers The Jockey Club previously said: “The festival went ahead under Government guidance to do so, like other sports events at Twickenham, Murrayfield, 10 Premier League matches and the UEFA Champions League, all with full houses that same week.

“We promoted the latest public health advice and introduced a range of additional hygiene measures at the event including hundreds of hand sanitiser dispensers and extra washbasins, which worked well.”

A spokesperson for the British Horseracing Authority also said: "We have taken great care to follow Government guidance. The government itself has been clear about the need to act proportionately and we have been in regular, direct contact with them.

“Some sports went beyond this when they started to see their own players and staff become affected. We were not aware of similar cases in racing at that time.

“The Government advice before and during Cheltenham was that mass gatherings were not a high area of risk, provided hygiene measures were in place and observed.”

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