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A lot has been made of the proposal to make the prestigious Cheltenham Festival a five day affair in the not too distant future and while it’s polarised opinion it’s a good idea to look at both the positives and negatives of a five day festival.
First some background though and it’s notable that until 2005 the Festival had traditionally been a three day meeting, with only the adverse weather effected 2008 meeting seeing racing staged on three days in the interim period.
While the addition of new races such as the Ryanair Chase, Mares Hurdle and Fred Winter has diluted the quality of the top races somewhat all have proven to be highly popular with the owners and trainers and while the old 20 plus runner renewals of the Triumph Hurdle seem long gone, plus the annual will X or Y go in the Cheltenham Gold Cup or will they tackle the shorter Champion Chase questions also seem to have disappeared the races themselves have seen some tremendous battles and close finishes.
The vast majority of racing fans would have liked to have seen six time Mares Hurdle winner Quevega tackle the Champion Hurdle or subsequent dual Champion Hurdler Honeysuckle do likewise in 2020 both took on top class opposition away from the Festival tackling geldings at Punchestown. With one of the big complaints from fans currently being that there’s far too much focus on Cheltenham from those involved in the sport and it’s to the detriment of other high profile meetings and Graded races that regularly attract single figure fields with connections citing Cheltenham as a reason for avoiding certain races at certain times of year.
Quite what format the proposed extra day will take is another matter but the organisers need to work out what they want the Festival to be. Do they want it to be a number of top class Championship races for both experienced horses and novices with a spattering of highly competitive (and valuable) handicaps or do they want to stage as many races as possible with a few Grade 1’s and capacity crowds of folk drinking and partying.
If it’s the former than it’s hard to see too many arguments in favour of extending to a fifth day unless the additional day takes on a similar role to the old Heath Day at Royal Ascot, a more laid back affair compared to the previous four, possibly with one or two of the lesser Graded races, say the National Hunt Chase and the Mares Novices’ Hurdle plus the cross-country and one or two more handicaps or even a card of races for horses balloted out of the handicaps on the first four days.
Arguably three top notch Festivals – Cheltenham, Liverpool/Aintree and Punchestown in the last six or so weeks of the season is too many and while Cheltenham currently sits top of the list prestige wise the management would do well to remember that the National Hunt Chase was once the second most prestigious race in the calendar after the Grand National and that the sport is continually evolving.
The issue of Covid is one that I hope for the time being and in the context of the sporting calendar is behind us but it would be wrong not to point out that the lack of fans at Cheltenham in 2020, the abandonment of Aintree the same year and other issues will have left a hole in the coffers of Jockey Club Racecourses who not too long ago built a new stand at Cheltenham which also needs financing so it’s perfectly understandable given the sell out crowds that the National Hunt highlight gets that organisers are keen to push for extra days.
With regards to negatives the sport is already turning off many traditional racegoers with the push towards alcohol fuelled race days, concerts and expensive tickets for standard enclosures on music nights where the action on the track doesn’t seem to justify the cost of the ticket and there’s no option for reduced entry for those who have no interest in the concerts that take place post-racing.
With the push towards greater restrictions on gambling, via the forthcoming legislation and restrictions on gambling spend, combined possibly down the line with alcohol consumption in environments that facilitate gambling the sport generally, and in this instance Jockey Club Racecourses would do well to be reminded that change may be forthcoming and that once traditional racegoers are alienated and turned off from the Festival it may be difficult to get them back through the turnstiles, particularly if what was once an annual three or four day pilgrimage for many is now a five or six day affair assuming that racegoers don’t fancy rushing down on the Tuesday and back on the Friday night.
While a fifth day of the Festival would almost undoubtedly dilute the quality that might not necessarily be a bad thing given the main complaint from racing fans on social media with regards the jumps season seems to be that too much focus is placed on Cheltenham when there are Grade 1 races in the UK or Ireland every month from November to April. With some of these races attracting particularly small fields due to horses being saved for Cheltenham we might see these races benefit from a diluted Festival, so too might the relatively new Dublin Racing Festival that sees top class racing action take place at Leopardstown in early February.
Ultimately it’s hard to be certain one way or another whether a five day Festival would be a good thing or not, there’s certainly calls in some quarters to overhaul the jumps season calendar and a switch to a five day Festival could be the catalyst for that. However I suspect that is not what Jockey Club Racecourses will be pushing for, a downgrading of the importance of the meeting if you will when it comes to attempting to add an extra day and presumably extra races to the National Hunt showpiece.