Gales force Cheltenham to be abandoned for the day

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The Independent Online

At 2 o'clock yesterday afternoon, when 55,000 throats would normally have joined the traditional roar to acclaim the start of the first race, the sunlit lawns and terraces at Cheltenham stood deserted. A solitary jackdaw pecked at a worm near the winning post.

What is usually the most vibrant tableau of the sporting calendar was reduced to an eerie wasteland after high winds caused the abandonment of the second day of racing.

By that stage, ironically, a cold, bracing wind offered little menace. But the decision to abandon, five and a half hours earlier, had been made on unimpeachable grounds. With gusts exceeding 50mph forecast until mid-afternoon, health and safety officers would have required the evacuation of several temporary structures in two of the most populous areas of the racecourse. The flattening of one such structure, when gales struck on the eve of the meeting, had given the management a vivid example of what was at stake, and another roof came off at 7am.

The cancellation was the first time that the Cheltenham Festival has lost a day to bad weather since the 1978 Gold Cup was postponed because of snow. In 2001, the entire meeting was abandoned during the foot-and-mouth epidemic. That was a catastrophe for the local economy, but it was a different story yesterday as thousands of visitors found different ways to spend an unexpected day of leisure in the Cotswolds.

An arduous day for many local pubs will be matched by racecourse staff today and tomorrow, when the six races programmed for yesterday will be grafted on to the scheduled cards. Ten will be run today, between 12.30pm and 5.50.

The racecourse – which retains the turf enthusiast John Kettley as its in-house meteorologist – is insured against the loss of racing to bad weather. It is estimated that £1.4m in gate receipts and £2.5m in food and drink were lost yesterday.

All tickets will be refunded, but they are not transferable. Capacity for today has been lifted to 65,000. Edward Gillespie, the managing director, vowed: "If you come, you will get in."

Two or three hundred diehards did turn up yesterday; Tote booths at the course allowed them to bet at other meetings. Others went the whole hog. Guests in one Evesham hotel decided to drive to Huntingdon races.

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