Saturday, 15 April 2017

Festival Fever Fuels the Fortunes of Racing: Time to Extend Cheltenham and Aintree Festivals?

Wasn’t the victory of One For Arthur in the Grand National a sensational performance for all the connections, not least the Two Golf Widows and Lucinda Russell. As far as I know it is only the second Scottish victory in the race, the last being Rubstic in 1979, and this win should hopefully provide impetus for Northern NH racing which has declined to such a dire state in recent decades.

My wife and I went up for the whole Aintree festival and thoroughly enjoyed it, particularly as the weather favoured the meeting – especially an absolutely gorgeous Saturday. It may not have helped the ITV viewing figures, but the enormous crowd had a superb time. Indeed I don’t think I’ve ever seen a larger crowd on a British racecourse, and the revenue generated must have been colossal. This is also the case for the bookmaking industry with over £0.25bn staked on the race, which makes it over ten times more popular with punters than the FA Cup final.

It is certainly not a cheap meeting to attend, however. Our two badges for the Earl of Derby Stand and the car park cost over £300 on Grand National day. Having said that, for anyone who is a member of the ROA badge scheme, Day 1 is a bargain with free entry, and one of the best days’ jumping of the whole season. On that day we were thrilled to see one of our favourite horses in training, Defi Du Seuil, confirm his dominance and remain unbeaten. Philip Hobbs did a great job playing a straight bat on whether this super horse will go to the Champion Hurdle or the Arkle at next year’s Cheltenham Festival – a lovely problem to solve. Also delighted for Anthony and Rachael Honeyball when their Fountains Windfall ran the field ragged in the opening race of the final day under an extremely enterprising ride from David Noonan.

A final observation is that the partnership between Ann and Alan Potts, Colin Tizzard and Robbie Power has got off to the most incredible start. Indeed the wins of Finians Oscar, Fox Norton and Sizing Cadelco netted the Potts a total of £207,900 which they promptly spent at the boutique Goffs Aintree sale buying the top lot, Madison To Monroe, for £300,000. It says a lot about the price of NH bloodstock these days when even winning three races at Aintree barely pays for two thirds of a top-quality Irish point-to-pointer. Yet again the median in the sale rose considerably from last year’s £70,000 to this year’s £86,000. The dominance of top owners and top yards continues, with few opportunities for grassroots owners even to get a look in …. although having said that, One For Arthur was exceptionally well bought for “only” £65,000 as a youngster. Interestingly many NH owners are becoming more creative in how they go about buying young stock, as it is impossible to compete in the top sales. Finian’s Oscar was bought as a yearling in the Autumn Arqana sale for €20,000 and that is a sale that Owners for Owners is really enthusiastic about. Our Black Prince with Anthony Honeyball came from that sale and although only a 3yo he is a horse who will hopefully come through as a lovely NH prospect in time. We’ll definitely go back to that sale this Autumn.

It is becoming apparent that both keen racegoers and the general public love the big occasion of racing festivals. The four days of Cheltenham and the three of Aintree are probably attracting well over 400,000 attendees now. It is not that long ago that these meetings were very much dominated by die-hard enthusiasts who went along every day. I’m convinced that pattern is changing, with many now going for just one or two days. Indeed a huge percentage of the crowd don’t really seem to have much knowledge of, or be particularly interested in, the horses as such. It is the festival as an event that matters, rather than just the championship races on the track. Many argue that by extending these meetings you dilute the experience, and while that may be true for racing’s intelligentsia, I doubt if it is the case for the vast bulk of attendees.

If that conclusion is correct, then it probably now makes sense for both Aintree and Cheltenham to capitalise on the festival experience and maximise their revenue by increasing the meetings by a day. Without knowing the profit figures, this could lead to another very substantial injection of funds into the sport, particularly for investment in grassroots racing. Both Cheltenham and Aintree already have seven-race cards, so by reducing them back to six together with framing a number of additional races, another day could easily be filled. So for example at Aintree a “consolation” Grand National would be very popular with trainers and owners for those horses balloted out of the big one, and provide the crowds at each of the four days with an Aintree spectacle over the huge fences.

Whether my body could actually withstand the onslaught of an extra day at each of these festivals is debatable, so I suspect I would reduce attendance. However I do think there is a compelling financial argument for capitalising on the enormous popularity of the festivals.

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