Sunday 1 March 2020

Why Cheltenham Should be a Five-Day Festival – Even Though My Knees, Liver and Wallet will Struggle to Cope

When you’re in the stands at Prestbury Park and look across to Cleeve Hill, you’ll see the radio masts at the top. Travel a few miles beyond them in a straight line and you’ll get to my house. I sometimes say (though it isn’t strictly true) that if you slip the hand-brake on my car, it’s downhill all the way to the members’ car park. I’m here primarily because I adore Cheltenham Races and the Cotswolds. So do most of my friends, many of whom I am going to antagonise with this blog, so apologies in advance.

Here is my prescription for a proposed new Festival – make it five days; have the Gold Cup as the centrepiece on the Saturday; reduce the number of races to six per day; frame extremely valuable handicaps to end each day; ensure that these races enable grass-roots owners to have runners; and set a target for 300,000+ attendees.

In an ideal world, my personal preference would have been for a two-day, concentrated event – a National Hunt Breeders’ Cup meeting, or something similar to the superb Dublin Festival of Racing at Leopardstown in February. Putting all the top races together in a two-day extravaganza would be fabulous, but there is clearly no chance whatsoever of that occurring. Cheltenham over the years has quite rightly made the event bigger and broadened its appeal. All the arguments against this on the basis of dilution appear pretty weak, and really we have to regard the Festival as one of British Racing’s most valuable assets. Let’s make it bigger and better, as soon as possible.

The starting point is to do with the bigger picture of British Racing, which seems to be in decline in terms of ownership and racecourse attendance. Owner numbers have been on a steady downward trajectory throughout most of the past decade, and despite the ambitious goal of seven million racecourse attendances by 2020 – set as a key target of racing’s Strategy for Growth – the reality is unfortunately that numbers have dropped, to 5.62 million last year, from 6.13 million in 2015. There are doubtless quite a few structural factors behind this, and it is likely to be impossible to reverse these declines without significant change on a broad but targeted front. Attracting new racegoers into the sport is absolutely essential, and the demand appears to be strong for festivals and marquee days, which is something that the racecourse groups can’t afford to ignore. Without going into too much detail, why doesn’t racing incorporate a programme of top-quality Saturday events throughout the year, designed to appeal to this demand. One of the arguments will always be that it would clash with football or other sporting events but, for starters, how about a sequence of even bigger racedays for the Aintree Grand National, Epsom Derby, York’s Melbourne Cup (aka the Ebor), Ascot’s Champions’ Day, Haydock’s Betfair meeting and, of course, Cheltenham and The Festival (which I’ve noticed is now trademarked, with by-lines such as The Best Spectacle in Sport and In March, the Only Place to Be.

From the ownership standpoint, all roads lead to Cheltenham. It’s incredible that for this year’s Festival there are 928 entries for the 10 handicaps alone, including 156 for the Martin Pipe, 148 for the Coral Cup, 99 for the County Hurdle and 96 for a race that I can’t even remember what it’s now called – the Plate. All owners, and particularly those at the grass-roots level, want to be part of the Festival. For trainers it is a symbol of success to have runners, never mind winners, and for staff it is hugely motivating to lead up the horses in the famous Cheltenham amphitheatre. The ideal would be to frame races to enable broader participation, and it would be terrific if every day there were hugely valuable handicaps that put significant winnings into the hands of lesser trainers and owners. It wouldn’t be difficult to design races to facilitate that. Indeed, I’ll be at the forefront of a campaign for a syndicate series that has its final at the Festival. These types of races could also be linked in with nationwide qualifiers that would spread the wealth and increase field sizes at the lesser tracks.

Many will characterise the expansion of the Festival as commercial greed, designed to “milk” the racegoer and punter. There are already lots of events and sideshows around the Festival that a lot of people dislike. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea to participate in The Park, which is, apparently, “a totally unique area ….. offering an alternative experience ….. the Insta-worthy place to be” (whatever this might mean). But we shouldn’t belittle the marketing talent that is going into the Festival, and the considerable contribution made by Jockey Club Racecourses to prize-money as a result. In 2010 this was £13m per year, and by the end of the decade it has climbed to £27.1m. Hats off to JCR!

Over to Martin St. Quinton, the new Chairman of Cheltenham, not only to grab this commercial opportunity with both hands but to bring in a broader audience of racegoers, especially when the Gold Cup is on a Saturday. If a few of the traditional fans reduce their attendance or even drop by the wayside, so be it. As one of them, I’m sure I’ll adapt, even if the physical demands are becoming more onerous with age. But doubtless the Cheltenham roar at the beginning of each day will make attendance worthwhile …. and when one of my horses wins the Syndicate Final on the Saturday of Cheltenham, I’ll be in seventh heaven. Bring it on!

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