It’s only natural to want more of what you enjoy and so, when the topic of extending the Cheltenham Festival came up last week during the event itself, the idea got plenty of support. Lots of us would enjoy living in that bubble for weeks, assuming this was a normal March, without the existential threat of coronavirus.
The case in favour was articulated in the Cheltenham paddock by Mike Dillon, now a consultant in racing after 46 years with Ladbrokes, during which time he was credited with helping to save the Grand National. “We’re all here for four days, we all enjoy it but there’s people who have to work and can’t come,” Dillon said. “We’ve got to do anything we can to showcase the industry. We can’t just be dyed in the wool. Everyone said you can’t take the Festival to four days from three and look at what a success the four is.”
Dillon recalls being involved in that move, in 2005, because Ladbrokes became the sponsor of the Stayers’ Hurdle, moved from its position as a supporting race on Gold Cup day to being the feature race on the Festival’s third day. When Ascot was mulling the idea of extending its Royal meeting to a fifth day, as a way of marking the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002, Dillon’s opinion was sought. He remembers course officials insisting: “It’ll just be once. It’ll never happen after that.” Dillon adds wryly: “Well, of course, pounds shillings and pence obviously took over.”
Royal Ascot’s Saturday quickly became a huge success, which some of those working at Cheltenham are interested in replicating. Is there a large number of people waiting for the chance to attend a Saturday there? Dillon reckons so. “I think it’s a totally different person who would come on the Saturday,” he says, and for that reason he regards the extra day as inevitable.
Sharing that view is the trainer Oliver Sherwood, who said: “It’s only a matter of time.” This might be regarded as inside information, because Sherwood is friends with Martin St Quinton, the Cheltenham chairman.
Sherwood, who trained Monkerhostin and other horses for St Quinton, was not worried about the need for extra races, regarded by some as likely to dilute the quality of existing Festival contests. “If they bring it down to six races a day instead of seven, there’s only going to be two extra races. So it’s not much to worry about.”
Brough Scott, the much admired journalist and broadcaster, has a clear idea about what one of those races might be. “The race they ought to have, because it would be popular and very good television, is a women jockeys’ race. I can’t think why not. And that wouldn’t change the rest of the Festival programme, essentially.”
However, he doubted whether Cheltenham was inclined to make the move any time soon. “We’re running into very heavy economic headwinds but if the economy thrives and jump racing continues to thrive, why not? You’re not changing the face of racing. The difference is not really as great as it seems.”
Perhaps unexpectedly, a bookmaker provides a dissenting voice. “I do worry you could end up killing the golden goose,” said Simon Clare, who represents Ladbrokes Coral. “Going from three to four, I was a big fan and I think it has worked. But five, are you in danger of making it too long? Would it dull the appeal? You don’t want to end up turning more into less.
“I prefer to leave it as it is because I think it’s great. If you want to improve racing, focus on other areas, like a weak January. Taking your biggest success story and just trying to make it bigger is not necessarily the most logical approach.”
Trainers are almost obliged to welcome the idea of more races they could win for their clients, the owners. But Willie Mullins, who was once more top trainer last week, said: “I find it hard enough, personally, to get through four days.
“Already, I think, people are coming for the first two days and going home, or coming for the last two days. Commercially, I think it might be right. For traditionalists like me, probably not.”