Kevin Blake

With talk of a five-day Cheltenham Festival potentially on the horizon, leading racing writer Kevin Blake shares his thoughts on the subject.

  • Monday 06 January
  • Blog
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The new chairman of Cheltenham Racecourse Martin St Quinton flung a cat amongst the pigeons in an interview on ITV Racing last week. Asked by Ed Chamberlin about the possibility of adding a fifth day to the Cheltenham Festival, St Quinton didn’t rule it in or out. However, he did go on to make further comments that sought to justify it being strongly considered.

While St Quinton’s comments were essentially non-committal in themselves, what made them significant was that he seemed to be much more open to the possibility than he had been just 10 weeks ago when asked about a five-day Cheltenham Festival and holding the Gold Cup on a Saturday. As detailed on the Gloucestershire Live website at the time, St Quentin responded: “They are not on my agenda. We are very happy with four days for the Festival - the Tuesday to Friday format works well.”

The fundamental issue on the subject of extending the Festival to a fifth day is that the interests of Cheltenham Racecourse and committed followers of National Hunt racing are not necessarily aligned on it. Commercial considerations will always mean there will be a temptation to financially capitalise on a winning formula by extending an event such as the Cheltenham Festival.

Meanwhile, those that love National Hunt racing want the Cheltenham Festival to be the event that they have elevated it to, the undisputed championships of the sport.

A true championship should be about bringing together the very best horses in training to stage the clashes that everyone in the sport has been looking forward to all season. When one looks back on the three-day 20-race structure of the Cheltenham Festival pre-2005, it was close to perfect in terms of delivering pure National Hunt championship races, providing just the right amount of options for the very best horses and those that are one tier below the best.

Unfortunately, the aforementioned commercial considerations led to the Festival being expanded to four days in 2005 and it has steadily grown to its current tally of 28 races since then. The problem with this is that there simply aren’t enough top-class National Hunt horses in training to justify all of the races that currently make up the four-day Cheltenham Festival if they are to be true championship level races.

Thus, this expansion has served to dilute and reduce the quality of the action on the track. Additional options have enabled the ducking and diving that has all too often denied us seeing the top-class clashes the sport has been building to all season and that the Cheltenham Festival is supposed to be all about.

These consequences are starkly illustrated by the vast increase in the number of odds-on favourites at the meeting, as shown by these statistics produced by Simon Rowlands on Twitter:

This is why the suggestion of a fifth day winds up so many National Hunt supporters. The addition of a fourth day was a backwards step for the Cheltenham Festival as a racing product and a fifth day would unquestionably be another backward step in this regard.

Not to mention the reality that many true National Hunt supporters, the ones that take valued holidays from work and incur great expense to attend the Festival for no other reason than they love the sport, are already stretched by it being four days in length.

To assess how committed followers of racing feel about the suggestion of extending the Cheltenham Festival to five days, I ran this poll on Twitter over the weekend:

The results weren’t even close. Don’t just look at the poll results, read the comments underneath it. Personally, I cannot recall a Twitter poll relating to horse racing ever generating anything approaching so many votes and such an impassioned response. It couldn’t be clearer that what is in my opinion racing’s most valuable demographic, those that love and are committed to the sport, are dead against the proposal.

Would a fifth day be a commercial success? No doubt it would. Anything that is truly brilliant can be extended to capitalise on existing success, but the law of diminishing returns very much applies. Everything has a breaking point and magic is a finite resource. Expanding the Festival might increase short-term profits for Cheltenham Racecourse, but further extension of a meeting that is already overly stretched as a racing product will only serve to bring it closer to being just another big racing festival rather than holding the uniquely special status it currently does.

As well as all of that, there is a bigger picture to consider here. It might not be happening on any great scale yet, but in the not-too-distant future National Hunt racing is going to come under threat from opponents of the sport. This isn’t scaremongering. Anyone with any sort of foresight and realism will see the inevitability of this. The way wider society is moving means that increased scrutiny of any sport that involves animals is only going to increase and they will come after National Hunt racing long before they get to Flat racing.

That horse racing regulators have responded to relatively light scrutiny of use of the whip and equine welfare in recent years by headbutting the self-destruct button has served to highlight just how painfully ill-prepared we are to cope with such scrutiny. 

If we as a sport can’t mount an assured defence of the use of something so easily justifiable as the modern whip and our exceptional standards of day-to-day equine welfare, how can we be expected to deal with proper scrutiny of National Hunt racing? If we are being honest with ourselves, jumps racing and the over 150 horses that are killed while participating in it on Britain racecourses alone every year is far more difficult to morally and logically justify.

While there is much work to be done from racing’s regulators in constructing their defence of National Hunt racing, the most robust defence it can have is its popularity amongst the public.

National Hunt racing remains very popular and it is absolutely crucial for its future that it remains so. A strong sport is a far more difficult for its opponents to attack than a weak sport. With this in mind, Cheltenham Racecourse need to be acutely aware of the highly-significant role they play in the popularity of National Hunt racing.

Rightly or wrongly, the Cheltenham Festival is what 90% of the National Hunt season focuses on and builds to. For the more casual followers of National Hunt racing, the Cheltenham Festival is what they will judge the entire National Hunt season on. It is also one of the most important recruiting tools to attract new followers to the sport. Thus, it is absolutely crucial for the popularity of the sport that it delivers on all of that build-up in the most spectacular way possible.

Cheltenham has already sacrificed some of the magic of the Festival at the alter of commercial gain by adding a fourth day and eight new races. Adding a fifth day would be a betrayal to the passionate National Hunt supporters that have elevated the Cheltenham Festival to the status it currently enjoys and who quite clearly do not want a fifth day. If this were to happen, it would unquestionably be to the detriment of National Hunt racing as a sport.

It cannot be overstated just how much of a privileged position Cheltenham Racecourse is in. They play host to a Festival that is the absolute focus point of an entire sport. There is no other race meeting on Earth that holds such revered status. Rather than seeking to maximise their financial gain from this privileged position, one can only hope that Cheltenham recognise the wider responsibility they have to National Hunt racing and its passionate supporters to make the Festival the best possible showcase for the sport.

To conclude, the biggest trap that passionate followers of racing can fall into is to meekly accept a fifth day as a commercial inevitability. Committed followers of the sport owe it to themselves to let Cheltenham know how strongly they feel about this. If you feel as strongly about this issue as I do , make your voice heard. Do not underestimate the power of public sentiment.

Kevin Blake
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