The racing community is divided on the Jockey Club proposal to extend the Cheltenham Festival from four to five days. The idea was first mooted in public last year by Martin St Quinton, Chairman of Cheltenham racecourse since 2019 but, despite recent media reports that the change will definitely happen in 2023, the Jockey Club remains coy on the matter.
A spokesperson for the Jockey Club says “It is always interesting to listen to the debate around a fifth day and the last time this was discussed in earnest in public some key stakeholders in our sport expressed their desire for a fifth day. We will always explore every option to improve the Festival and support British racing, but we have made no decision to extend the length of the Festival.”
Despite this attempt to dampen down the speculation, many in the racing industry are convinced that a fifth day is on the cards. Cheltenham, the pinnacle of the jump racing season, was extended to four days back in 2005 and last year attendance totalled 266,000. Adding a further programme on the Saturday would see increased Festival income from an expected crowd of 65,000 – all paying a minimum of £50 for a ticket – and associated course-based and media revenues. St Quinton commented “It would get a lot of opposition, but people don’t like change. People complained when it went from three days to four but now everyone loves the four-day festival. Royal Ascot was very similar with the Heath meeting on the Saturday and now that is their most popular day so you’ve got to be open minded about these things.”
Currently there are seven races a day during the Festival – totalling 28 races – and it is expected that, with an additional day of racing, the daily race card would reduce to six. An additional two races would therefore need to be introduced. Some trainers and owners would see the change as a positive, providing opportunity to enter horses for the new races, but many remain sceptical. The Festival’s most successful trainer, Willie Mullins, acknowledges the dilemma saying “From a trainer’s point of view we should be looking for six days. But I don’t think it’s ready for five days. I don’t know if it will ever be ready for five. You would be talking about filling up on handicaps which devalues the whole thing, I think.”
There is indeed concern that an additional day will see diluted competition across the board, an issue already faced by flat racing which has an over provision of top-class races. Odds-on favourites have become more frequent at the Festival since the move to a four-day event was made in 2005 and, although to an extent this may be attributed to the reduction in number of yards, the doubling in odds-on favourites over the past two decades must also be due to the increased number of races. Fans of horse racing want to see the most talented horses compete against each other and they worry that a five-day Festival would threaten the integrity of the racing experience.