By Martyn Herman
CHELTENHAM, England (Reuters) - With impeccable timing, the grey clouds peeled back and glorious sunshine bathed the Cotswold Hills flanking the rolling green acres of Cheltenham Race Course on Tuesday.
It was the perfect stage for day one of the iconic jump racing festival. Yet it was missing its 60,000 supporting cast.
For the first time in its more than 150-year history no fans will be soaking up the human and equine drama guaranteed by the so-called Greatest Show on Turf.
When Rachael Blackmore sped her charge Honeysuckle past the post to become the first female jockey to win the Champion Hurdle, the opening day's feature race, the towering stands were empty and the only noise was the drumming of hooves on earth.
Usually an Irish triumph -- and this was an extra special one -- are greeted with roars loud enough to carry halfway to Dublin as hordes of boisterous fans annually turn tranquil Cheltenham into a heaving corner of the Emerald Isle.
Last year's total attendance was 251,684, of whom a significant percentage made the pilgrimage across the Irish Sea to revel in their nation's horse racing success.
In a typical year punters swallow around 265,000 pints of Guinness, 120,000 bottles of wine and 20,000 bottles of Champagne. Helicopters buzz in and out carrying the VIPs for whom Cheltenham is a must-attend social bash.
This year, because of the year-long coronavirus pandemic, things look, feel and sound altogether more sober.
The only queues in Cheltenham's centre on Tuesday were those waiting outside the bank. Cafes were empty and pubs locked.
"It's usually mental," Anya Adams, who works at the Black Gold coffee shop in town, said on Tuesday. "They usually come here for a breakfast before starting to drink. This year it's so different, there is no atmosphere at all."
Cheltenham resident Roger Neighbour described the jump racing festival as more important to the town's coffers than Christmas -- not an exaggeration considering the estimated 100 million pounds boost it provides to the Gloucestershire economy.
"It's an Irish invasion usually, it's fun if you want to get involved, but most locals don't go out," he said. "It's very boozy and loud, celebrating or drowning their sorrows."
This year, locals have been left in peace for the first time since 2001 when the festival was cancelled because of foot and mouth disease -- the only peacetime year it did not run.
Only jockeys, trainers and stable staff are allowed on site because of strict COVID-19 protocols and the 150-strong Irish contingent must spend the week in a "bubble" ensuring they do not mix with their British counterparts.
A small media contingent are housed in a 'closed' bar area that would normally be rammed 10 deep with punters.
On-course betting booths are closed, as are the UK's betting shops, although an estimated 500 million pounds will still be wagered on the 28 races over the four days.
Considering the festival contributes a sizeable proportion of the Jockey Club's 50 million pounds annual profits, the absence of crowds hurts but there is also relief that it got the green light and the hope that four days of high-class racing will have a healing impact on the sport's dented image.
A year ago the Cheltenham Festival went ahead despite COVID-19 spreading ominously across the country.
The climax, the Gold Cup, took place in front of a heaving 68,000 crowd with social distancing impossible, the same day British soccer was suspended and 10 days before Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced extensive UK-wide lockdown measures.
A Daily Telegraph reporter described the almost surreal scenes as a "virus dispersion hub".
Many blamed Cheltenham's 'business as usual' approach for spreading the virus although organisers maintain they were following government advice at the time.
This month the sport was reeling when Irish trainer Gordon Elliott and Irish jockey Rob James were both banned after photos and videos emerged of them sitting astride dead horses.
So Blackmore's history-making ride on Tuesday was a timely boost for the industry, even if her joy was slightly tarnished by the strange circumstances.
"The people are what make Cheltenham," she said. "It's still very special, but it's definitely not the normal Cheltenham of old. Hopefully we will see the thousands back here next year."
(Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Pritha Sarkar)