Crowd sizes at the 2023 Cheltenham Festival have plummeted as punters feel the pinch of the cost-of-living crisis.
The attendance at Prestbury Park on Wednesday was just 50,387 – a drop-off of a whopping 14,044 (21%) compared to the same day of the Festival in 2022.
Tuesday also saw a fall of 8,282 with just 60,284 passing through the turnstiles, while Thursday’s crowd weighed in at 62,429 – some 11,325 down on a year ago.
Festival organisers had decided to cap the attendance at each day of racing to 68,500 at the 2023 meeting in a bid to improve the experience for everyone inside the venue, but it’s likely that only today’s action – led by the Gold Cup – will come anywhere close to meeting that number.
It reflects the growing trend for dwindling attendances at horse racing meetings in the past year, although the cost-of-living crisis – allied to train and teachers’ strikes – have also been cited as reasons.
The director of racing at Cheltenham, Ian Renton, said:
“I think the strikes have definitely had an impact and we saw when they were announced that ticket sales slowed.
“We’re comparing the figures to a bumper year and we’ve capped the attendance in particular for tomorrow. We were expecting fewer people and everything I’ve heard so far suggests people have had a comfortable experience and that is important.”
Racecourse Association chief executive David Armstrong has been singing from the same hymn sheet, and he believes that the industrial action on the UK’s railways has led to many staying away.
“Certainly making it that bit harder to get here doesn’t help,” he said.
“It’s a little bit early to tell overall. There’s a lot of noise in the numbers because of the strike action. Thursday was quite a good crowd and today [Friday] is sold out.”
Watching from Afar
What was interesting about the 2022 attendance numbers at Cheltenham was that they were backed by a record number of people tuning in to ITV’s coverage at home – suggesting the appetite for the Festival was at an all-time high.
Nearly 20% of all UK TV viewers watched the Gold Cup last year, with a week-long average of 17% of audience share a record for the coverage.
The 2023 numbers are yet to be published, but given the numbers staying away from Prestbury Park in person, those are likely to be very high once more.
But low attendances at track side are reflective of the general state of British horse racing. Crowd numbers fell by some 14% in 2022 compared to the previous regular season of 2019, and while Gold Cup day at Cheltenham is expecting a sell-out to go with the anticipated big audiences at the Grand National in a few weeks’ time, the overall picture is troubling.
And it may be the case that its casual punters and those on lower incomes that are having to stay away from racing. It has been noticeable that the biggest drop in attendance at the Cheltenham Festival has come within the general admission areas – although hospitality and VIP zones continue to thrive.
“What you see is that the numbers in the lower cost enclosures are the ones that are under threat, whereas hospitality is absolutely packed out, with every space gone,” Armstrong confirmed.
“What you’re probably seeing is those people with pressure on their disposable income are just finding it that little bit harder.”