As the much-anticipated 2022 renewal of the Cheltenham Festival rapidly approaches, it’s going to take a lot to spoil the party over the course of the four-day meeting. But if there’s one thing that can certainly dampen the spirits of the boisterous racegoers at Prestbury Park, it’s the ongoing talks of extending the prestigious Festival to five days.
It’s a sensitive subject that seems to pop up around this time every year, but with influential trainers like Nicky Henderson and Kim Bailey addressing it positively in the mainstream media, there’s a real sense of inevitability amongst the jump racing world that a five-day Festival really could be on the horizon in just the next couple of years.
Of course, it’s not an idea hated by all lovers of Nation Hunt racing, but the vast majority of punters who enjoy the thrills and spills of a bet on Cheltenham races share the same thought — why try to fix something that isn’t broken? That it certainly isn’t. Attendances are still through the roof, with Gold Cup Day selling out in record time this year, while 28 races are more than enough to keep people entertained and not feel left wanting more.
One of the arguments for a five-day Festival is cutting down each day’s racecard to six races, moving the redundant contests to the Saturday and, therefore, only having the need to add two new races to the agenda.
That wouldn’t be the worst idea in the world, as it saves the worry of entries for the big races being reduced even further, one of the concerns surrounding the current Festival, while it would mean that the quality isn’t brought down a peg either.
That would also perhaps make the Festival less of a gruelling contest for the riders competing against each other in the Cheltenham top jockey odds to get their hands on the Ruby Walsh Trophy. Yes, there would be an two extra races overall, but the prospect of riding a maximum of six times a day would arguably be better for their energy levels than the current seven-race format.
But what races would get moved? One of the four Grade 1s on the opening card seems like the obvious choice. No other day boasts as many top-level races, so it’s fair to take one and move it to the new card — probably the Mares’ Hurdle so that nothing is taken away from the thrill of the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and the Arkle raising the curtain in style.
The next palpable contest would be the Ryanair Chase. It lurks in the shadow of the Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle on the St. Patrick’s Day card, so could take centre stage as the new day’s feature race.
Other options could be some of the races that currently close cards, like the Grand Annual, the Champion Bumper and the Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle. It would give them more coverage, as they often skip the ITV broadcast, but is there enough quality to attract 70,000 spectators to a fifth day?
It really isn’t as simple as moving around a few races here and there though. One of the major questions then would be which course will the additional day take place on? As things stand, the first two days take place on the Old course and the latter half of the week is contested on the New course.
So, would the Old course be repaired during day three and four in order to be ready again for the new card — which would be no easy feat as the majority of the railing would need to be rearranged again and the track could be badly ripped up in the early stages of the week if the weather is bad — or do the organisers hold the first three days on the Old course and the final two days on the New?
At the end of the day, you can’t please everyone. We’re sure the same feelings were shared when Cheltenham was extended to four days back in 2005 and we’ve certainly grown to love it in all its glory since. The same can be said about when Royal Ascot introduced a fifth day in 2002 to celebrate the Queen’s Golden Jubilee.
It’s a subject that is bound to boil over eventually. But for the meantime, let’s just soak in and enjoy the atmosphere of racegoers being back in attendance at Prestbury Park this year!