Overkill or extending the pleasure of one of horse racing’s most beloved meetings?
Adding a fifth day at the Cheltenham Festival has long been on the agenda – in fact, it’s been talked about ever since the Prestbury Park meeting became a four-day jolly in 2005.
It’s a sort of Marmite question amongst racing enthusiasts, but the Jockey Club have now confirmed that a five-day Cheltenham Festival has now progressed beyond mere speculation to genuine discussions.
The group owns Cheltenham Racecourse, and they have signalled their intention to meet with trainers and owners to discuss extending the March extravaganza.
The decision to increase Cheltenham from three to four days in 2005 was met with scepticism, and there are plenty to this day that believe the meeting has been ‘watered down’ by the addition of fairly meaningless Grade 3 renewals that add very little in the way of racing interest or betting revenue.
Of course, around 70,000 people flock to the Festival each day, so the incentive from the money-men to add a fifth day – more than likely by tagging a Saturday to the end of the current schedule – is clear from the perspective of ticket sales. Gold Cup day at the 2022 meeting saw record sales, so it’s evident that the demand is in place.
Others point to the success of the Punchestown Festival each April, which has become one of the standout fixtures in the National Hunt calendar and which features a five-day schedule including a Saturday finale. Royal Ascot and Glorious Goodwood also take place across five days.
The chief executive of the Jockey Club, Nevin Truesdale, has admitted that there are pros and cons to adding a fifth day to the Festival.
“One of the very few big festivals without a weekend day is Cheltenham. You therefore have to look at five days as a serious proposition, certainly based on the ticket sales we’ve seen this year,” he said.
“However, I can absolutely see there are very valid ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ arguments. It’s all about attracting a new audience without spoiling what you’ve got.”
The desire to attract a different type of punter at the weekend is one thing, but many are concerned that a decrease in field sizes at the meeting in 2022 would be worsened exponentially by adding extra races into the fray.
Whatever decision is taken, it’s unlikely that we will see a five-day Cheltenham Festival until 2024 at the earliest.
What Would a Five-Day Cheltenham Festival Look Like?
If a fifth day – a Saturday – is added to the schedule of the Cheltenham Festival, would they have to move the Gold Cup from its current Friday timeslot?
That’s just one of the questions that organisers will have to answer, as well as where will they find two more races from – it’s likely that a five-day edition of the meeting would feature a six-race card each day.
Also, would punters feel short-changed if each race day is cut to six races from seven? And how would ticket prices be affected?
The current weekday version of the Cheltenham Festival ensures that the horse racing is front and centre in the hearts and minds of sports fans. But an added Saturday would see the meeting come up against football, rugby and all manner of other distractions….would that dilute the prestige of the Gold Cup? After all, the Grand National has already been shifted to a tea time slot to avoid a clash with other sports played on the day.