Historically, the Cheltenham Racecourse Committee always insisted that the addition of a fifth day to the Cheltenham Festival, which was extended from three to four days in 2005, was not on the agenda. However, in an interview with ITV Racing, Martin St. Quinton, who was appointed Chairman of the Cheltenham Racecourse Committee by Jockey Club Racecourses in May, 2019, stated, ‘I wouldn’t rule anything in, but I wouldn’t rule anything out’, rekindling press interest in a five-day Festival.
Indeed, Willie Mullins, the most successful trainer in the history of the Cheltenham Festival, with 65 winners to his name, dismissed speculation as merely ‘a press thing’. He told the Irish Times, ‘You would be talking about filling up on handicaps, which devalues the whole thing, I think’. Nevertheless, the Cheltenham Festival currently consists of four days with seven races on each day or, in other words, a total of 28 races. Other high-profile trainers, including Philip Hobbs, argue that, if six, rather than seven, races were staged on each day, just two extra races would need to be added to create a five-day programme. In fact, an additional Grade Two mares’ steeplechase is due to be introduced to the Festival programme in 2021, in which case just one extra race would be needed to create five, six-race cards.
One popular suggestion for an extra race is a Grade One hurdle over the intermediate distance of two-and-a-half miles, which seems logical enough granted that similar contests – namely the David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle, Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle, Marsh Chase and Ryanair Chase – already exist for all the other divisions of National Hunt racing. Opponents of such a race argue that it would dilute the quality of existing ‘championship’ races, such as the Champion Hurdle and Stayers’ Hurdle.
Nevertheless, the reduction in the maximum stake allowed on fixed-odds betting terminals, from £100 to £2, implemented in April 2019, has led to a spate of betting shop closures, with a knock-on effect on horse racing prize money. In difficult times, a five-day Cheltenham Festival would generate extra revenue so, like it or not, Martin St. Quinton may be subject to further scrutiny on the subject in due course. It would also of course increase the number of betting opportunities going forward, and there will be no shortage of tips for Cheltenham 2020, that’s for sure.
At RacingQuestions.co.uk we’re always looking to hear your input too. So what’s your take on a five day Cheltemham Festival? Is the existing and long standing four day format the way to go (in an ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ approach) and do you share Phillip Hobbs outlook that it wouldn’t take a great deal of alteration to change the current format? Or perhaps Mullins concerns about a potential watering down of the quality on offer offers pause for thought? As recently as January 2020 Best Mate’s trainer Hen Knight shared these sentiments, saying a five day festival would “lose the quality”.
I’m sure we’ll all soon be watching every second of the 2020 Cheltenham Festival and so it’s as good a time as any to ponder these questions. Whatever your view, feel free to let us know and of course it goes without saying that if you have any burning racing questions that you want answering fire those our way too!