What is the ideal length for a festival of racing at a single venue? Three days? Four days? Five days? More?
Galway is the longest at a full seven days, but by mixing both codes and providing opportunities for everyone to win every imaginable grade of racing it gets away with it. The spectacular anything-goes jamboree attracts rave reviews year after year.
Goodwood, if we are being very honest, feels a bit bloated at five days. It is perhaps a victim of the success of the Ebor Festival at York that follows two and a half weeks later where three days of seriously high-calibre action fits inside three days with no space for any fat on the bone.
As far as the jumps are concerned, Aintree’s three-day Grand National Festival works very nicely indeed while nobody complains that Punchestown stretches to five though there are never enough English-trained runners.
The real focus is on the most loved Festival of all, those four days of unparalleled sporting drama in the Cotswolds in mid-March.
Well actually it was once a mere three days of course, and stayed that way until 2005. Those of us old enough to remember the Tuesday-to-Thursday Cheltenham Festival have fond memories of huge crowds crammed into hopelessly inadequate grandstands.
And when the Irish had a winner, for they were in the minority in those days, you really knew about it. Danoli and Dorans Pride seemed to bring half of Dublin into the winner’s enclosure with them.
Extension an ‘anathema’
It was kinder on the wallet, as punters making the annual pilgrimage paid for one less day of accommodation, drinking, tickets and transport. And there was never any feeling that we had been sold a bit short by “only” having three days of action to enjoy.
So the prospect of extending the existing four days to five is anathema to many traditionalists. As Lee Mottershead writes in the Racing Post: “One of the great beauties of the Cheltenham Festival is that every race should matter. If Cheltenham and its Jockey Club owners freely admit five of the existing races are candidates for the chop [to accommodate a new graded mares’ chase from 2021] it is hard to see how there can be any justification for extending the festival.”
Mulling things over, I came up with an idea that could suit both sides of this debate. Oddly, its genesis comes in the “old” Royal Ascot – which was originally four days – and its subsequent extension. For many years, it was traditional for racing to return to the course on the Saturday for what was known as the “Heath” meeting, a much more informal affair.
How Ascot went to five days
But that was only until 2002 when the Heath day suddenly became day five of Royal Ascot. At the time, Ascot was “keen to stress” the Royal meeting would extend to Saturday for one year only to mark the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. It shuffled a few races around, added several more. But guess what? The whole concept was so popular that the Berkshire course never looked back.
So how’s this? My idea is that the Cheltenham Festival stays at four days, but a fifth, more informal day with a different brand of racing is added to the racecourse fixture list.
A CASH COW FOR THE JOCKEY CLUB
With all the infrastructure, TV cameras and caterers already in situ and the inevitable weekend footfall boost to look forward to it would be a cash cow for the Jockey Club.
I would propose a reduced ticket price and a race schedule that takes advantage of the cross-country course that is used just once at the Festival (and only on two other occasions in the entire year). These would be handicaps over a variety of distances – perhaps one exclusively for mares – and could easily provide four of the six or seven races on offer.
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In addition, I have long been surprised there isn’t a graded 2m 4f hurdle race which would surely attract plenty of entries and it wouldn’t be hard to add a lower-grade handicap chase and a bumper. That would provide seven fun races on a Saturday that the cognoscenti may well sniff at initially, but with racing so desperate to look for new ways of attracting a younger crowd it could be a shot in the arm in terms of raising the sport’s profile.
And consider this. The Cheltenham Festival does not cater for families or people who can’t get time off work. A “People’s Saturday” would cover that quandary alright. Just don’t do an Ascot and sneakily suck the fifth day into the Festival proper.
Possible schedule for a Cheltenham “People’s Saturday”
1.30 Cross-country race (2m 4f)
2.10 Handicap Chase (2m 4f)
2.50 Cross-country race (3m 6f)
3.30 Grade 2 Hurdle (2m 4f)
4.10 Cross-country race (mares)
4.50 Cross-country race (3m)
5.30 Two-mile bumper (juveniles)