It’s 1pm at the Cheltenham festival and the party is in full swing in the infamous Guinness village beside the majestic Prestbury Park course.
It’s a sea of herringbone tweed suits and bespoke trilby hats as old friends greet each other with big bear hugs and wrap their arms around each other for a selfie.
In the run-up to St Patrick’s Day, a traditional Irish band is playing music on stage and the bon homie is infectious as punters study the form and try to pick a winner from the card.
Strict hygiene rules and keeping a safe personal distance do not seem a concern of any sort. It quickly becomes clear that the only Corona on anyone’s mind here comes with a slice of lime.
Welcome to the Cheltenham cocoon where it seems that attendees don’t believe that Covid-19 has a pass to the reserved enclosure and the only fever that prevails is of a festival nature.
As the first race beckons on day two, one punter strolls over to the Tote and rummages in a grubby box of bookies’ pens as they fill out their slip.
Once the race starts, several of them put down their pints and wander over to the big screen to watch it. When they come back, they pick up the nearest glass and begin enthusiastically drinking again, apparently heedless to which vessel they’ve picked up.
Ask any of them about concerns over the coronavirus and you’re met with a blank, confused stare as they studiously ponder who has brought the party pooper.
“No, not at all,” said one man before his wife added that she hadn’t actually seen many people washing their hands or using the disinfectant.
“You’re probably better off dipping them in a pint of Guinness,” he added.
I overheard another man remarking to his friend how “alcohol kills the coronavirus: drink as many pints as possible.”
Having flown over to Cheltenham on Monday, before Ireland had its first confirmed death from the virus, I found a ‘devil-may-care- attitude' prevailed among attendees at the track.
It was like the last day of the Roman Empire as all care and attention was abandoned for the thrill of a day’s racing. This did not alter during the course of the day, despite the WHO declaring it a pandemic on Wednesday.
But some of the behaviour I witnessed at the Prestbury Park venue was reckless and irresponsible in the midst of a crisis and on the eve of the third day, I decided to pull the plug and book the next flight back home.
I have never considered myself a risk taker and putting my health in the (dirty) hands of boozed-up gamblers was not something I was comfortable with.
I saw nobody using the ‘Wuhan handshake’ and while attendees made a big show of using the gel hand-sanitizers on the way in, their popularity clearly waned as the day progressed.
Punters got distracted by the lure of the track, the free-flowing alcohol, the party atmosphere and the easy money to be had.
There was a strong feeling that other major sporting fixtures had been cancelled so may as well do the big splurge at Cheltenham, which is worth at least €113m (£100m) to the local economy.
Over the course of the week, around 250,000 people are expected through the turnstiles, culminating in Friday’s Gold Cup, when there will be 70,000. They need to pull the plug on it before it turns into a national disaster.
Even the claim that the track covers a large area and attendees are not in close contact with each other for extended periods of time – like at soccer games - doesn’t ring true.
Several minutes before each race starts, thousands of people pour down to the track and gather in the stands to watch it, standing in close contact for extended periods of time, turning it into a giant petri dish.
There are similarly large queues for the buses after the race ends back into town, where, dripping in sweat and spilled alcohol, they will pile into cramped pubs around the town, without so much as a wet wipe between them.
The last thing on anyone’s mind is making prudent choices, acting responsibly after a full day of drinking and gambling and ensuring high hygiene standards.
Plus is it also wise to put the onus on boozed-up attendees to act responsibly; something that many people who gamble are not renowned for, by their very nature?
The Irish Government’s attitude to this crisis has been proportionate and measured. They were right to put the country on lockdown and close all schools and colleges and advise people to work from home. They have probably saved lives as a result.
But can the same be said of the British government, who advised Cheltenham chiefs to go ahead with the large-scale event and make it “business as usual”? One also wonders if the same decision would have been made in pre-Brexit days when the UK was still part of the EU and not a law unto itself.
When I ask racecourse general manager Ian Renton about a possible spike in cases in a fortnight’s time as a direct result of the festival, he said “we certainly hope not.” He also insisted that hand sanitizers and hot water and soap were being heavily used throughout the week.
“We hope the country can continue to operate as normal for as long as possible. As I say, we just have to listen to what the Government says and what advice it’s giving,” he said.
“I think the Health Minister has suggested there will be peak at some stage and we don’t know when that peak will be. But there is a bit of a feeling that this is a great event but a few weeks away, things might be very different.”
Letting Cheltenham festival go ahead was sheer lunacy. It’s impossible to see how there won’t be a surge in cases of the potentially-deadly virus as a result of the four-day blow-out.
Now that’s one thing you can bet your money on.