A five-day Cheltenham Festival is back on the agenda and, while it has been ruled out for 2022, it is understood that the Jockey Club is targeting 2023 with a view to running from Tuesday to Saturday.
The meeting in its present format has a total of 28 races, or seven a day from Tuesday to Friday. That would return to six races a day, meaning that two new races would have to be included. It is believed the Gold Cup would still take place on Friday.
A Jockey Club spokesman confirmed a five-day event was back on the table, but that 2023 was not a fait accompli. A statement said: “The last time this was discussed in earnest in public, some key stakeholders in our sport expressed their desire for a fifth day. We always explore every option to improve the Festival and support British racing, but we have made no decision to extend the length.”
The meeting was a three-day fixture until a fourth was added in 2005. The Gold Cup was moved from Thursday to Friday and the Ryanair Chase, an intermediate distance of two-and-a-half miles, was introduced to sit alongside the Stayers’ Hurdle on Thursday.
The Jockey Club would argue that a decision to go to a five-day Festival is not a straight financial one or as a direct result of the pandemic, which cost the course’s owner £90 million in 2020 alone. It is also keen to broaden its audience.
Royal Ascot introduced a regular fifth day in 2003 and if Saturday’s experience, in which the atmosphere was better than any other day, is anything to go by, it would bring in a much younger crowd.
Five days was always going to be back up for discussion after the Princess Royal stand, with its 6,500 capacity, was completed in 2015 at a cost of £45 million.
It would, of course, bring in extra income, although that would not be immediate as some custom would be lost from midweek with fans switching to Saturday. It was a few years after 2005 before profits increased substantially, because additional costs are not offset by increased ticket sales until the extra day has bedded in.
It would not be universally popular in a traditionally conservative sport. The move to four days was not welcomed in all quarters and back then it was regarded as controversial, so the Jockey Club will be treading carefully.
There is also an increasing belief within the sport that there is too much racing – even Royal Ascot has just moved to seven races a day, which watered down the quality of that fixture – and it will certainly not please those who fervently believe less is more.
That said, businesses in Cheltenham are unlikely to complain – the four-day Festival is believed to generate in the region of £100 million for the local economy. Apart from Royal Ascot, it would also bring it into line with Punchestown, Ireland’s equivalent meeting, which is run over five days at the end of April.
Commentary: Less is more — especially in racing
By Marcus Armytage
My heart sank a little when I heard that the Jockey Club believe the time is right to move the Cheltenham Festival to five days from four. Whatever happened to less is more?
It sank a little further still when I saw in its statement that the Jockey Club is being encouraged by its (dreaded word alert) "stakeholders" — those marvellously anonymous groups of people who hold an imaginary piece of someone else’s business and are led to believe they have a say in how that business is run.
Let's be honest about this. The main driver is, of course, not what any stakeholders want but the Jockey Club’s bottom line and, despite taking a big financial hit during the pandemic, the old club is not about to sell the family silver.
Not that there is anything wrong with making money but let's be upfront about it. I am as much a capitalist as the next fellow. Indeed it would be wrong if the Jockey Club’s decision makers were not trying to make more money because a lot of it feeds back into racing in one way or another.
I also understand that extending the meeting to a Saturday would bring in a younger crowd but it is not quite like Ascot, which can rely on the weather, in that respect. It also clashes with football and, where there is possibly more overlap, the Six Nations Rugby (the England-Ireland match or a game in Cardiff is often scheduled for that Saturday).
What really bothers me is the watering down of the product and some of the practicalities. So it goes to five days but, by cutting back a race each day, it only needs to come up with a couple more races to make 30.
But those two new races will impinge somewhere on existing races just as the Ryanair Chase, brought in when the meeting went to four days in 2005, took a bit away from the Gold Cup and the Champion Chase.
But what also tends to happen – take Ascot for an example – is that when everyone is comfortable with five days they start trying to slip in a seventh race a few years down the line.
There are also the practicalities. Cheltenham’s welfare issues will come under more pressure and how do you divi up racing over an odd number of days between the Old Course and New Course. Can it take it?
When I was an amateur jockey it really was something to ride a winner at Cheltenham. A single winner does not register on the scale now for a trainer or a jockey, you need five or six to get noticed.
If racing has a problem at the moment it is that there is too much of it. Good Friday used to be sacrosanct? What next, Christmas Day? Goodness knows where all the slow horses which comprise the base of the pyramid come from but, hey ho, soon they will get the chance to compete at the sport’s holy of holies, the Cheltenham Festival.