Cheltenham Gold Cup: Return of crowds can play a big factor in how your horse fairs in the Gold Cup, says a leading equine behaviour expert
The Cheltenham Gold Cup is the flagship race in the National Hunt calendar – one which everybody dreams of winning – but the race can be won or lost before the tape falls.
Anybody who has ever been involved in competitive sport will know what it’s like when the adrenaline is pumping and the nerves kick in – also how the crowd plays a positive or negative part – and the same can be said of even the very best equine athletes.
Last year, with Covid restrictions in place, the bars and stands at Cheltenham Racecourse laid bare. But, with a sellout crowd due to flood Prestbury Park for the fourth and final day, the atmosphere for this year’s Gold Cup is set to be more raucous than ever!
So, what does this mean for the entrants of the 2022 renewal?
Professor Mark Bowen, a leader in his field with over 20 years of experience in equine medicine and behaviour, reveals how the return of large crowds could influence some horses.
“The return of spectators has meant the traditionally passionate crowd is back in place, and the Festival has been much the greater for it, but the return of 80,000 Guinness-soaked racing fans for Gold Cup day presents a new challenge for some trainers. There will be many horses that will have only raced in front of a handful of spectators at quiet tracks, meaning Gold Cup day will be a very unfamiliar environment for them.
“There are some horses who don’t have a level of understanding that all these people have come to watch them win a race, but clearly some horses thrive in that environment.
“Horses are all individuals, and some horses seem to thrive in an environment where they’ve got lots of noise around them, even if they’ve not been exposed to it before. So you’ll get some horses, and often their performance is going to be better on a race day than it is ever going to have been during training, that’s partly because they’re being ridden to win rather than to train. There is an effect of competition that does push them to the limits of their performance. Maybe it will advantage some of those horses that have raced before.
What are the optimum times for crowd noise affecting runners?
“The large crowds are going to have the biggest impact on horses at the beginning and the end of the Gold Cup. There are going to be noises that are going to be unfamiliar and cause some mild anxiety as they arrive at an unfamiliar environment and stable.
“The time that horses are most exposed to the public is the parade ring and on the way to the start and then, if they’ve had a good day, in the winners’ enclosure, those are the key points where we should be thinking about how the return of spectators is going to impact on runners in the Gold Cup.
When we cheer our heroes past the stands and into the winners enclosure – have you ever wondered whether they can hear us? Here is your answer…
“During the race itself, horses are the ultimate athlete, they have evolved as a herd species and they are racing each other out of a natural instinct to be in front and therefore at that point, the spectators have the least impact on them. Coming up the hill, they’re doing 25mph, so the noise that they register is going to be very limited and the noise will come to them at the end after the racing has finished and that’s when they’ll be exposed to that noise.”
Whether or not we realise it, racing fans have a huge influence on the four-legged competitors – the way we act and react at a race meeting can ultimately make or break a runner.
“The spectators play a very important role in terms of the horses being prepared for a race and their attitudes to that race.”
With thanks to Mark Bowen, who was speaking on behalf of ‘online racing betting community OLBG’
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