After speculation that seems to have lasted for years, it has been confirmed that the Cheltenham Festival will remain a four-day event for the foreseeable future.
We wrote about the possibility of a fifth day being added as long ago as June 2021, with 2023 being the year that the speculation centred around. There had been grumblings around a fifth day being added for many years even before that. Now we know that that won’t be happening, with the world of racing reacting in near-unanimous joy to that fact. For racegoers, the lack of a fifth day means that their bank balances won’t be hit by needing to pay for another day.
For jockeys, trainers and owners, meanwhile, the decision not to add a fifth day has been seen as a win for ‘common sense’. For their own part, the Jockey Club carried a six-month consultation into the possibility of adding a fifth day, listening to a wealth of voices that are involved in racing in one form or another.
Whatever it was that they heard from said voices, it was obviously felt by the Jockey Club that there wasn’t enough demand for a fifth day to be added to a Festival that many feel is the perfect size for what it actually offers.
Why A Fifth Day Was Touted
Before looking in more detail about why a fifth day has been rejected, it is worth considering why it was even touted in the first place. Every time the Festival rolls around, there have always been voices calling for a fifth day. In many ways, this was mainly because people love the Cheltenham Festival so much, they don’t want it to end. When asked about a fifth day being added ahead of the 2022 Festival, the most successful British trainer of all time, Nicky Henderson, said that he could ‘see no reason why not’.
The move to become a four-day meeting took place in 2005, with seven races a day allowing for 28 races to be run during the course of the Festival. From Henderson’s point of view, a fifth day would only have increased the number of races on offer by two, putting six races on a day for a total of 30 events. It would’ve, in Henderson’s eyes, presented an opportunity for the Jockey Club to make more money. He said, “Royal Ascot benefited tremendously from it and, financially, can we afford not to do it?”
From the point of view of Cheltenham Racecourse, a fifth day would have allowed the capacity to be reduced across the other four days. Ian Renton, the Managing Director at Cheltenham, said that it felt as though the capacity was being pushed and stretched during the Festival in 2022.
The infrastructure was reaching its limit, meaning that the course needed to have a look at reducing the capacity on all the days in order for the racecourse to be able to cope with the number of people in attendance, irrespective of what it was that the weather was doing at any given moment.
Indeed, even prior to the announcement that a fifth day would not be added Cheltenham had already stated that Festival attendances will be reduced for the benefit of racegoers. In a strange twist of events instead of having a fifth day to increase capacity at Cheltenham from now on it will be reduced.
Why It Has Been Rejected
It is difficult to say exactly why it is that the Jockey Club has decided not to add a fifth day to the Cheltenham Festival. There were many involved in the sport that felt as though the fifth day being added was a fait accompli, with the consultation merely put in place as a window dressing for a decision that had already been made.
Part of the reason why the ultimate decision was not to add a fifth day might come down to the fact that it wouldn’t actually have made the Jockey Club as much money as was hoped, largely because it would’ve been on a Saturday. At other large meetings, such as Royal Ascot, the fifth day on the Saturday is seen more of a party day and doesn’t attract serious racegoers. It is possible that Cheltenham wanted to avoid that, especially in light of bad press in recent years about drunken behaviour in the town in previous 4-day meetings.
The biggest money maker for any sporting event is corporate hospitality tickets, which are sold at a significant mark-up when compared to normal tickets. The problem is that it is much harder to sell such tickets on a Saturday, if for no other reason than the Festival would be competing with other sporting events such as football and rugby. On top of that, staffing costs are much higher on a weekend than they are on a weekday, meaning that any money that was made thanks to the addition of an extra day would be cut down by these extra costs.
Plus by going the other way and actually reducing the attendance for the current four days they actually make the Cheltenham Festival more of a premium event. If it is harder to get tickets for the more many people will want tickets, as is the way with premium things. It is highly likely Cheltenham didn’t want to add another day that would have detracted from the product as a whole.
Though the decision has been seen as the right one from many in the industry, it is widely accepted that there is plenty that needs to change to improve the experience of racegoers heading to the Cheltenham Festival. One of the biggest criticisms of the addition of a fifth day was that it would further dilute the competitiveness of a Festival that is already struggling to offer genuine competition for races. There has been a decline in field size year-on-year for some time, which would only have worsened even if just two more races were added.
For a lot of people, the Festival already has too many races, which they believe is shown by just four runners taking part in the Grade 1 Turners Novices’ Chase in 2022. The presence of three other novice chases at the meeting means that many feel that losing the Turners would be no bad thing to the overall state of the Festival. If Festival organisers are serious about trying to find ways to improve the meeting, looking at how many races there are and trying to find ways to reduce them to six a day rather than adding two more to the roster.
As for punters, you might think that an extra day would be welcomed. After all, a record 280,627 people turned up to watch events over the 2022 Festival. The problem is that many didn’t enjoy the experience, not least of all because they were asked to pay £14 for a gin and tonic and £7 for a pint of Guinness. Given the fact that ticket prices, hotel costs and the expense of eating are all going up, it is likely that fewer people will be able to make the trip to Cheltenham this year, even before we think about the cost of living crisis engulfing the United Kingdom.
Ian Renton’s comment that the infrastructure was pushed to breaking point in 2022 is perhaps one of the key factors when it comes to the enjoyment of racegoers. It is good that the Jockey Club recognises the problems, but unclear what it plans to do about them. The decision not to add a fifth a shows that the organisation is keen to avoid a scenario in which it kills the goose that laid the golden egg, but can it also move to make the necessary changes to make it a more enjoyable experience overall, rather than just an expensive one?