Tradition dictates that the Cheltenham Festival runs from Tuesday to Friday every March, and so far the racing extravaganza has resisted any urge to add a fifth day or rejig the schedule to Wednesday-Saturday.
The commercial benefits of doing so are pretty obvious, and according to comments made by the track’s new chairman, Martin St Quinton, the option of adding a fifth day to increase revenue has been discussed.
Indeed, St Quinton, who has been in the role since October, told ITV Racing that he would ‘not rule out’ adding a fifth day to the festival’s schedule, citing the example of the weekend day at Royal Ascot as a chance to ‘attract a different crowd’.
“It would get a lot of opposition,” he said. “But people don’t like change. People complained when it went from three days to four, but now everybody loves the four-day festival.
“Royal Ascot was very similar with the Heath meeting on the Saturday and now that is their most popular day, so you’ve got to be open-minded about these things.”
However, in an extraordinary rebuttal, Cheltenham officials have released a press statement denying St Quinton’s claims, confirming there were ‘no plans for a fifth day’.
The need to balance the books is key – the Cheltenham Festival is a business like any other, and organisers believe a Saturday would fall short of sales in terms of corporate hospitality, which is typically one of the most lucrative sellers for the track.
Other pressures, the football and rugby seasons being cited as just two, might also affect ticket sales, and so there is unlikely to be a fifth day added until course officials can guarantee the Saturday would be profitable.
And there would also be concerns about the condition of the Prestbury Park tracks if a fifth day was added, unless of course the number of races per day was decreased – and then that would affect the amount of value for money that tickets offer.
There’s plenty to think about then, and no simple answer is likely to prevail.
The Case For and Against
Those last three points are just some of the reasons why, for now at least, the Cheltenham Festival will remain a four-day affair.
But be under no illusions: pressure for a Saturday extension will continue while Jockey Club Racecourses, the brand which owns Cheltenham, face continued financial pressures in the wake of betting shop closures. It is essential that extra prize money continues to be pumped into the pot to attract the world’s best horses to make the trip over.
The standard day at the Festival features seven races, so if one of those was held over each day to the Saturday – plus the addition of the planned Mares’ Chase from 2021 – then it would be possible to create a workable racecard.
Indeed, it might be the best ploy given the stream of people that tend to exit the turnstiles after each day’s feature race – typically missing out on the final outing of the day.
Concerns of ticket sales on a Saturday will forever be a stick in the mud for many, but don’t forget that in midweek many racegoers have to take a day’s holiday off work – most would welcome the chance of a weekend outing in that sense.
If track officials can guarantee a quality racing surface for all five days, there’s no reason why a Saturday card – headlined by the Ryanair Chase or, most controversially of all, the Gold Cup – couldn’t be workable.
Who knows, the financial benefits might secure the future of the Cheltenham Festival for decades to come….