I always find September and October one of the most interesting periods of the year. We’re working through the last of the big Flat racing festivals and just starting to sense that the spectacle of Jumps racing is about to begin. This year in particular we have had a really thrilling couple of races from our two-year-olds, Lord Ben Stack and Jolievitesse, so I’m keen to hold on to the Flat and the fine weather for as long as possible. It is likely that the imposing Dylan Thomas (Lord Ben Stack) will go for the Group 2 Royal Lodge Stakes at Newmarket on Saturday, 27th September (Cambridgeshire day), while the equally impressive Elusive City (Jolievitesse) will be aimed at a Listed race before being put away for the winter. At this stage we’re really excited by both prospects, so much so that we’re creating two high-flying plans for next season: Lord Ben Stack’s early target to be the Dante ahead of the Derby, and for Jolievitesse, the English or French 2000 Guineas before the Sandown Classic Trial. (If you can’t dream, you shouldn’t own racehorses!)
So with this focus on the Flat, it has taken me a few days to read through the ultra-glossy brochure from Cheltenham that turned up recently, outlining its “New Era”. The long-overdue, £45m grandstand development is well under way, with everything expected to be ready to open for the Festival in 2016. In the meantime of course we’ll just have to get by as best we can, and doubtless there will be some grumbling about diminished facilities available for our £330 full membership. I’m sure though that the new grandstand, changes to the weighing room, redesign of crowd flow over the pedestrian bridge etc. will be a very big improvement and I’m really looking forward to everything being completed on time.
However, I’m going to ask Cheltenham what the “New Era” will mean for owners. The glossy brochure was obviously aimed at selling tickets, membership, hospitality and even the “unique opportunity” to join the ultra-ritzy Cheltenham Club that will be situated on the top floor of the new grandstand. While it won’t be as expensive as the rumoured £80,000 annual charge for a private box, you would certainly need a few hefty wins on the track to pay for admission. Unfortunately the 36-page brochure says almost nothing at all about the benefits for owners. So here are a few of my own recommendations:
- Redefine the owner experience so that Cheltenham sets a new benchmark standard for excellence.
- Dramatically upgrade the Owner & Trainer facilities both within the new grandstand and elsewhere, so that Cheltenham can provide that standard of excellence on every day of racing including the Festival.
- Stop the differentiation in facility access between the owners in top graded races at the Festival and in the handicaps. It costs the same amount of money to train a horse regardless of its race, and all owners should enjoy a high-quality experience on the track. Stop sending owners off to crummy facilities in marquees where they have to buy their own food and drink.
- Be far more generous with owners’ badges. Last year, when our Shantou Magic ran in the Martin Pipe, we had to pay £90 for each additional badge. Bearing in mind that our owners were also members at Cheltenham and had already paid over £300, this is excessive.
- Cheltenham may argue that numbers have to be restricted because of health and safety in the paddock etc. If that is genuinely the case, increase the size of the paddock now as part of the redevelopment scheme, so that it can accommodate more owners. This is our Olympics and showcase, so why restrict numbers?
- Sort out the Owners & Trainers entrances so that badges can be allocated and picked up without the hassles that have been experienced over recent years. It is demeaning to have to stand there, trying to convince the desk staff that you are a genuine owner entitled to a badge.
- Finally, set a new era on prize-money. Three recommendations: dramatically increase the quantum of total prize-money; have prize-money down to 6th place; and apply the principle that any placed horse must win enough to cover the cost of entry, jockey fees and transport to the track. Lots to discuss as we all pile in to the revamped See You Then bar at the start of the new season on Friday, 17th October.