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TV Wrap - ITV can't hit the right note as the shameful staging of Cheltenham is laid bare

ITV tried to cover the festival like it was any other year…but this year is far from normal.

A view of Cheltenham racecourse.
A view of Cheltenham racecourse.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

THE SO-CALLED SPORT of Kings, where the people are still invited to throng small spaces and spread disease like the feudal times of yore. 

But sport itself has become a kind of vassal state, existing only to pay tribute to the corporations that have captured it, and although almost all other domestic and international competition have by now butted with reality and ground to a halt, the Cheltenham Festival today continued unabated.

When Augusta National is cancelling the Masters outright rather than indulge in their famous regard for shutting people out, you know something pretty serious is up. 

Yet Cheltenham went blithely on, keeping the turnstiles ticking, the pints flowing and the microbes flying. 

“We thought it might be cancelled”, said presenter Ed Chamberlain, “but the instruction of the government is to keep calm and carry on, and that’s what we will do.” 

They couldn’t. ITV’s attempts to act as if everything was normal were mocked by the cavernous echo of the monstrous crisis looming over all of us. 

Follies ranged from the bracing – a gag about putting Willie Mullins in charge of combating Covid-19 – to the downright absurd, as Chamberlain heralded two owners shaking hands after a race as “an example to us all.” 

Eeesh. 

Matt Chapman was as grating as ever, at one point admonishing a punter in the betting paddock “Don’t shout into the microphone…you idiot.!”

The Social Stable, a kind of quarantine area for enthusiastic eejitry, invited viewers to send in their “sneaky selfies” from work or home, ignorant that they are now one and the same for most of us. 

Even the standard build-up to the Gold Cup lingered uneasily, as Chamberlain spoke of the packed grandstands and the “giant congregation” around the winner’s enclosure. 

festival-trials-day-cheltenham-racecourse ITV's Ed Chamberlain. Source: Barrington Coombs

Sport’s narrow and well-thumbed dictionary is a poor thing when the world’s vocabulary is one of crisis and abnormality. 

It’s difficult to be too scathing of ITV, though, given they were just trying to cover the festival like it was any other year. 

But this isn’t any other year.

The place was a petri-dish, incubating illness within and breeding fear and anger without. That “It’s coming home” betting ad featuring Colm Meaney is going to age as gracefully as Oisin falling from a horse.

That the festival went ahead at all was deeply questionable; that it wasn’t called off before today – now that the world is more aware than ever of the spread of the virus and the relative effectiveness of social distancing – is shameful.

Its going ahead as normal is a result of an abject lack of leadership from its organisers and, above all, the British government. 

The Festival relied on government advice when it came to staging the whole thing, but with every passing hour, the official British response to the outbreak seems ever more laissez-faire and reckless. 

Even the Premier League has moved to follow the advice of other governments and suspended football for the rest of the month. It is a ghastly shame that Cheltenham Festival organisers did not heed their response. 

a-view-of-racegoers A view of the racegoers at the Cheltenham festival. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

In the coming days, there will be a temptation to deride the people returning from the festival, but let’s try not to do this.

With daily life ruptured for the foreseeable future, can you really blame people for wanting to find refuge in whatever normality is available to them? Who wouldn’t want to be distracted? 

The festival needed to be taken away.

We are not built to navigate times like these without swift, decisive and empathetic leadership. We fortify ourselves with delusions and dilutions; inoculating ourselves with thoughts that things can’t really be this bad. We need true leadership to tell us that yes, it is this bad and here’s what we are going to do about it. 

Those going to Cheltenham were grotesquely denied this leadership by Festival organisers and the government they hid behind.  

Meanwhile, ITV ended their coverage by saying that “all eyes on Uttoxeter tomorrow…as there’s nothing else on!”

Incredibly, the racing goes on.

The Sport of Kings, run by fools. 

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About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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