There has been a long rumbling debate ever since the a forth day was added to the Festival in 2005 that Cheltenham should mirror Ascot by hosting a five day meeting instead. This would bring Cheltenham in line with Punchestown in Ireland, where a five day festival of jump racing is held late April / early May each year.
While the question of a fifth day has been periodically raised several times over the years it seems to have now gained traction in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic that cost racing just short of £100 million in 2020 with further losses in 2021. With the Jockey Club now considering the possibility of adding a 5th day by 2023 it seems this is now a serious proposition.
Does Cheltenham Need A Fifth Day?
The question many will ask is a fifth day really needed or is it simply designed to be a cash cow that could dilute the quality of the existing Festival? If you look at the success of Ascot over the past two decades since a fifth day was added in 2003 then the argument would be strongly in favour of adding another day at Cheltenham. One of the aspects being looked at is how Cheltenham may attract a younger crowd and it has been noticed that the Saturday at Ascot attracts more younger people than the weekdays.
On the other hand Ascot is a very different proposition to Cheltenham hosting shorter flat races rather than longer more challenging jump races. Horses are able to enter more races at Ascot over five days compared to what would be possible at Cheltenham due to the longer recovery times and there are also more high grade flat races that can be used to fill 5 days at Ascot compared to jump races at Cheltenham.
One argument could be to keep the Festival as a four day event but shift the days so that it runs from Wednesday to Saturday rather than Tuesday to Thursday. Another option could be to run the meeting over 5 days but reduce to six races each day, which would then only require a further two races to be added overall.
It is important that the Jockey Club do not get too blinded by the potential increase in revenue from a five day event at the cost of the overall quality of racing.
The Festival is worth a huge amount to the local Cheltenham economy as well as to the British economy in general. It is hoped adding a fifth day to the event will drive further revenue to the area as well as increase public engagement in general, as well as, of course, increasing the number of people betting on the races.
There are other reasons why the proposition is being taken more seriously now than in the part, such as the redevelopment of the Princess Royal stand in 2015 that added an extra 6,500 to the capacity. On Gold Cup Day the course can now hold nearly 72,000 people (slightly less on the other days). Currently the Festival attracts around 250-270,000 spectators (in normal years) over the 4 days and the idea would be to increase this to 310-330,000.
What Cheltenham does need to avoid, though, is expanding for the sake of expanding and just because today it can fairly easily sell out for most days does not mean this will always be the case. The average attendance over the four days currently is around 65,000 / day, the question is will this be maintained if there is a fifth day? Would people choose not to go on a weekday if they know they can now go on weekend instead, for example?
Again comparisons are drawn to Ascot but there are many different factors in play. Ascot is much closer to London, making it easier to draw in the younger weekend crowds and it has a stronger Royal connection that many people are drawn to. Quite whether an additional 65,000 or so people will make the effort to travel to Gloucestershire in March, where the weather can be very different year on year, remains to be seen.
A good sporting reason for an additional day at Cheltenham would be to potentially help reverse the recent trend of the best horses being moved to Ireland for training. In recent years the Irish have come to dominate at the Festival to the point where it became embarrassing for the Brits in 2021 when Irish trained horses won over 80% of races despite fielding only 40% of the overall runners. Many would hope that by adding a fifth day to Cheltenham it may help British trainers to get more of a foothold again and perhaps help reverse the tide of the best British bred race horses moving across the Irish sea.
What Would The Fifth Day Be Like?
If Cheltenham follows the Ascot model then the fifth day would be more of an extra day with current Championship races staying where they are now, i.e. Gold Cup day would remain on the Friday and this would still be the pinnacle of the Festival.
The idea will likely be to host a day of lower grade 2, grade 3 and listed races with perhaps a feature grade 1 race along with a series of handicaps. The main motivation for the fifth day will be to attract a weekend crowd, where often it is the day out in general that matters more than the level of the races on show.
Therefore, the potential 5th day is unlikely to be much of a threat to the composition of the cards for the current four days. This should largely make the purists happy while accommodating a younger crowd on the Saturday. If that proves not to be the case and they do start moving the big races around then there will be a proportion of unhappy racegoers who will no doubt speak up. After all change is never easy.
One issue the meeting will face will be the weather. On occasions in March Cheltenham has been glorious, like in the photo above. At other times the meeting has been wet, cold, windy and has even seen snow in the past. Unlike with Ascot this will play a big role, especially if most of the Saturday racegoers are there for a day out, perhaps traveling from London by train and going back on the same day. With climate change set to bring wetter winters to the UK and with Cheltenham experiencing a lot of flooding of late these are factors to be aware of. Unlike the purists the occasional racegoers are more likely to be put off by a bit of bad weather.