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Virus 'hiccup' won't stop Irish fans flocking to the Cheltenham festival

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Paul Townend celebrates after winning last year’s Cheltenham Gold Cup Chase on the Willie Mullins-trained Al Boum Photo. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

Paul Townend celebrates after winning last year’s Cheltenham Gold Cup Chase on the Willie Mullins-trained Al Boum Photo. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

Paul Townend celebrates after winning last year’s Cheltenham Gold Cup Chase on the Willie Mullins-trained Al Boum Photo. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

Cheltenham chiefs have assured thousands of Irish fans that the coronavirus will not see next week's festival cancelled, despite two cases being diagnosed in Gloucestershire.

The global spread of the virus has already caused major disruption to sporting events and other mass gatherings around the world, including the postponement of next weekend's Six Nations clash between Ireland and Italy at the Aviva.

However, the organisers of this year's Cheltenham festival - which runs from March 10 to 13 - urged the 20,000 Irish fans planning to travel to "forget your worries".

The assurance came as the second case of the coronavirus on Irish soil - and the first in the Republic - emerged on Saturday and as the total number of cases in the UK hit 35, including two in Gloucestershire.

The first deaths from covid-19 in the US, Australia and Thailand have also been reported.

Resolve

Cheltenham Racecourse chief Ian Renton described the number of cases in the UK as "tiny".

"It will take more than this hiccup to stop racing or stop the Irish from travelling," he said.

Mr Renton's resolve to stage the festival followed an earlier statement from the British Horseracing Authority, saying: "Racing continues as usual."

In an interview with The Irish Field, Mr Renton would not be drawn on plans to reschedule, or even stage showpiece races such as the Gold Cup without spectators.

"We're only looking at the four days from March 10 to 13 at this time," he said.

"The British racing industry is in constant contact with the government here and they're doing an excellent job at maintaining the high health status.

"We're looking forward to starting the festival on March 10. My message to your readers is to forget your worries and come and enjoy the four days."

Commenting yesterday, a spokeswoman for Cheltenham said that despite the two coronavirus cases in Gloucestershire, "the position on the festival is unchanged".

Britain's chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, has warned that mass gatherings - including sporting events - could face cancellations for at least two months amid the escalating health crisis.

If the virus intensifies - as expected - Liverpool FC could lift their first Premier League title in three decades in front of no fans.