AL BOUM Photo is among a string of top-class Irish runners who could miss the Cheltenham Festival if Covid restrictions aren't eased.
There are concerns that a coronavirus travel ban – and Brexit red tape – could see the numbers of Irish runners drop dramatically at this year's meeting.
At the last two Festivals, horses trained in Ireland have accounted for 38 per cent of all runners, a total of 180 horses in 2020 and 187 in 2019.
Trainers Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott in particular have sent over huge strings in the past, and the amount of stable staff needed to handle such numbers could lead to a potential logistical nightmare.
And to make matters worse for punters, Irish-trained runners currently head the betting in nine of the 14 Grade 1 races.
Industry chiefs believe it is unlikely that there will be no Irish runners at all, but in the worst case scenario the likes of Al Boum Photo, the back-to-back Cheltenham Gold Cup winner, could be left stranded in Ireland when the festival starts on March 16.
Other horses that racing fans hope will light up the Festival include top novice chaser Envoi Allen, who won the Ballymore Novices' Hurdle at the Festival last term and is red-hot favourite for the Marsh Chase.
The Willie Mullins-trained Appreciate It also heads the betting for the Supreme, while stars Chacun Pour Soi, Monkfish and Honeysuckle are also market leaders for their respective races.
Horses were unable to travel between Britain and Ireland over Christmas, and the Irish government last week extended it's travel ban.
New Covid-19 regulations also came into force on Saturday requiring anyone entering Ireland from Britain to have received a negative PCR test for coronavirus within 72 hours.
Anyone arriving without a negative test faces of a fine of €2,500 or six months in jail.
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The measures are in place until at least February, but infection rates in both countries appear to make for an uncertain outlook for non-essential travel across the Irish Sea.
Despite the precarious situation, the boss of Horse Racing Ireland (HRI) Brian Kavanagh is still upbeat as industry chiefs continue to work hard to ensure travel can restart in time for March.
He said: “I would be positive about Cheltenham. Obviously it all depends on how things go in the bigger picture between now and then. But it is 10 weeks away.
“During the summer we found ways, and in some ways it was one of the most successful seasons on the flat ever, internationally.
“Okay things are more restrictive right now. But we will apply Government guidelines, work with trainers, and I would be positive that we’ll find ways when the time comes to get Irish participants over there.
“As things apply there is a need for testing for people coming back from the UK to here, and a need for isolation and stand-down periods.
“Equally there is the possibility of some requirements from the British government of people coming into their country.
“Up to this point they have applied a common travel area system from Ireland so there hasn’t been any specific requirements for Irish people. We will need to keep an eye on that. But I would be hopeful enough.
“Moving animals is going to be more complex with extra paperwork and the costs involved (following Brexit). But at least we now know what needs to be done."
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