Allaho ridden by Rachael Blackmore wins the Ryanair Chase at the Cheltenham Festival in March
A five-day Cheltenham Festival is back on the agenda and, while it has been ruled out for 2022, it is understood that the Jockey Club is targeting 2023 with a view to running from Tuesday to Saturday.
The meeting in its present format has a total of 28 races, or seven a day from Tuesday to Friday. That would return to six races a day, meaning that two new races would have to be included. It is believed the Gold Cup would still take place on Friday.
A Jockey Club spokesman confirmed a five-day event was back on the table, but that 2023 was not a fait accompli. A statement said: “The last time this was discussed in earnest in public, some key stakeholders in our sport expressed their desire for a fifth day. We always explore every option to improve the Festival and support British racing, but we have made no decision to extend the length.”
The meeting was a three-day fixture until a fourth was added in 2005. The Gold Cup was moved from Thursday to Friday and the Ryanair Chase, an intermediate distance of two-and-a-half miles, was introduced to sit alongside the Stayers’ Hurdle on Thursday.
The Jockey Club would argue a decision to go to a five-day Festival is not a straight financial one or as a direct result of the pandemic, which cost the course’s owner £90 million in 2020 alone. It is also keen to broaden its audience.
Royal Ascot introduced a regular fifth day in 2003 and if Saturday’s experience, in which the atmosphere was better than any other day, is anything to go by, it would bring in a much younger crowd.
Five days was always going to be back up for discussion after the Princess Royal stand, with its 6,500 capacity, was completed in 2015 at a cost of £45 million.
It would, of course, bring in extra income, although that would not be immediate as some custom would be lost from midweek with fans switching to Saturday. It was a few years after 2005 before profits increased substantially, because additional costs are not offset by increased ticket sales until the extra day has bedded in.
It would not be universally popular in what is traditionally a conservative sport. The move to four days was not welcomed in all quarters and back then it was regarded as controversial, so the Jockey Club will be treading carefully.
There is also an increasing belief within the sport that there is too much racing – even Royal Ascot has just moved to seven races a day, which watered down the quality of that fixture – and it will certainly not please those who fervently believe less is more.
That said, businesses in Cheltenham are unlikely to complain – the four-day Festival is believed to generate in the region of £100 million for the local economy. Apart from Royal Ascot, it would also bring it into line with Punchestown, Ireland’s equivalent meeting, which is run over five days at the end of April.