CHELTENHAM Racecourse says interest from Irish racegoers in purchasing tickets for the 2022 Festival is similar to pre-pandemic levels but travel agents and Festival regulars have told The Irish Field a different story.

The Festival typically attracts 65,000 racegoers each day and the racecourse is currently working on the expectation that full capacity will be allowed. A recent survey estimated that there are 14,000 Irish there each day.

Eimer Hannon, whose Hannon Travel company in Navan specialises in racing trips, says interest is considerably lower so far this year, though that could change as restrictions on international travel ease and more public confidence returns.

“There wasn’t the usual rush at Christmas to purchase Cheltenham packages as gifts,” Hannon reported. “People are unsure about travel, particularly those over 50 who are hesitant to take risks due to Covid-19. I think it will take time for that demographic to regain full confidence in going to crowded events.”

Hannon says that flights to Cheltenham are plentiful and reasonable value, but the price of accommodation near the racecourse has shot up. One Cheltenham town centre hotel quoted The Irish Field a price of £845 per night for a double room during Festival week. The same room is just £90 per night this week.

“Sterling is also at a two-year high against the euro, which is going to have an impact,” Hannon added. “Another factor is that Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival went behind closed doors. I think that frightened some people and also it took away the buzz. You might have expected people to enjoy Leopardstown and then start thinking about going to Cheltenham.”

Ticket prices have also been hiked. A Club enclosure ticket for all four days cost £358 in January 2020. The equivalent tickets cost £405 today. Converted to euro, that’s €484.

The Irish Field asked some Festival regulars this week about their plans and the majority were inclined to stay at home. One Kerryman, who attended Cheltenham for 35 years before last year’s shutdown, said: “I travel in a group of around 10 and none of us are going this year but it’s not the money.

“There is an element of nervousness around being in a packed grandstand or pub at the moment. If we go, we want to be able to socialise fully – we don’t want to stay in our rooms every evening.

Small community

“But there is another reason we decided not to go. After coming back from Cheltenham 2020 we were treated like pariahs in our small community. There were some Covid cases linked to our group and it was very embarrassing. Some business people who had travelled suffered as a result.

“Already questions are being asked if we are going again and there is pressure there. I love going to Cheltenham and, to be honest, it is a shocking bad start to the new year for me.”

Recent Leopardstown winner Royal Kahala has booked her ticket to the Festival but what of her owners, the Winning Ways Starlet Syndicate? Oran Crean, syndicate manager, said: “I haven’t decided but, speaking personally, seeing 29,000 people at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day was concerning. I am cautious by nature – I was racing at Leopardstown and Limerick over Christmas but I didn’t go indoors or into the grandstand.”

Of five other Winning Ways members who shared their thoughts, only one said they would definitely travel to Cheltenham. Another is “hopeful”, and the other three were undecided.

Grant Rowley of Cheltenham Racecourse said: “Our ticketing team has done some digging and, in terms of the level of Irish interest for 2022 compared to 2019, it’s very much the same. Not a huge amount either way.”

Joe Tully of Tully Travel in Carlow reported: “The number of Irish going to Cheltenham this year will be nothing like in 2018 or 2019. It will probably fall short of the 2020 figure, when a number of people cancelled their travel plans at the last minute as we learned more about the virus.

“A lot of our regulars reserved their Cheltenham packages as far back as last summer but that all stopped overnight in September when the Government introduced the requirement to produce a negative PCR test before returning home or face 10 days’ quarantine abroad.

“That restriction was lifted this week and bookings began to trickle in again.”