There is growing commercial pressure to extend the Cheltenham Festival by an extra day and race on the Saturday.
For traditionalists still seething since the original extension to four days 15 years ago, this would simply be a step too far.
But as they say in Star Trek, resistance is futile. There are now so many well-connected stakeholders publicly denying the possibility it seems only a matter of time before an extension is announced.
The festival in its current construction is like a Premiership manager leaving his Chairman’s office with votes of confidence.
Others are way more open in their enthusiasm for a five-day festival. Kim Bailey, Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle winning trainer: “It won’t happen overnight, but I am surprised it is not five days already. I think it’s inevitable,” said Bailey. “Yes, it may dilute the Festival but there are pressures, commercial pressures and I think it will happen.”
Bailey’s view is representative of a growing band of trainers who are so unified and ‘on message’ in pushing for the fifth day some cynical people believe that an orchestrated campaign to garnish public acceptance is afoot. Even the course chairman, Martin St Quinton, has joined in recently, stating that “he wouldn’t rule anything in, or anything out.” The decision rests on the return on investment numbers because once the principle is established all that is left is the price.
When the big announcement comes, and it surely will, the delivery will be with righteous gravity and tweedy solemnity, emphasising the need to serve the future of racing and the all-round good of the sport. We’ll be reminded that Royal Ascot has thrived with the new Saturday card and neither Punchestown nor Galway have been disadvantaged for the extra day.
Does all this messing around with tradition matter all that much? Not really, not when compared to the spread of viruses or refugee children queuing at unwelcoming borders. But the subject at hand here is history and horse racing. Cheltenham festival National Hunt horse racing. Tradition has value and change needs to be managed carefully and never faster than a motion before a GAA Congress.
Try get a black card onto a hurling pitch or the ‘maor-foirne’ off it and you will learn all you need to know about messing around with programmes at the Cheltenham Festival.
Tread softly, react slowly, touch lightly.
Which makes the recent tinkering with the festival’s most often run race, the ‘four-miler’ National Hunt Challenge Cup even more perplexing. The brand-new version of a contest first run in 1860 goes off at 5.30 this afternoon, two furlongs shorter and a couple of fences scarcer than last year. All because some over-anxious officials took the view that some amateur jockeys tried a little too hard in last year’s race and this resulted in uncomfortable viewing in a sport under microscopic scrutiny from animal rights activists.
To be fair to the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) the decision to alter the conditions of the race had been under consideration before last year. The extreme distance and amateur riders had already caught the eye of nervous race planners, but the cure could be worse than the disease. Jockeys will go faster over a shorter distance with fewer fences and speed can kill just as often as fatigue.
Last year only four finished from 18 starters and it wasn’t pretty, the tired but game Le Breuil winning from Paul Nolan’s Discorama. But look what happened since. Le Breuil heads the market for the Kim Muir Chase on Friday and Discorama, subsequently second in a Grade One novice chase at Punchestown, is among the favourites for the Ultima Chase later today, arguably the most competitive staying handicap chase of the festival. Their exertions a year ago doesn’t seem to have left too deep a mark. Go back a little further. In 2018 the race was won by Rathvinden who finished third in the Aintree National next time out, beaten by Tiger Roll, no introduction necessary, who won the four-miler a year earlier.
It was won in 2016 by Minella Rocco, subsequent runner up to Sizing John in the Gold Cup with Native River third, gaining good track experience to help beat Might Bite in one of the finest editions of the same race for decades a year later. A small sample, but still evidence that horses that run well in the National Hunt Chase over four miles often go on to much better things. Reaction to last year’s unusually ugly finish could prove to be a reactionary misdiagnosis.
The race drips with history and it’s laden with exotic characters and tales of derring-do. George Ede who rode Freshman to win in 1861, was the captain of the Hampshire Cricket team at the time and went on to win National on The Lamb in 1868 and then lose his life tragically on a fall at the Chair in the same race two years later.
After some nomadic years at different courses the race was added to the newly formed Cheltenham festival in 1911 and has been on the card ever since.
Today’s race looks like it could be yet another cracker and hopefully, still a nursery for future champion staying chasers. The favourite, Carefully Selected, surprisingly short priced at 7/4 for a race with so many variables, was second to Relegate in the Champion Bumper a couple of years ago.
Trained by Willie Mullins he’ll be ridden by Patrick, twice a winner of the race and was reportedly very keen to get this horse qualified for today and unusually for a horse trained by his Dad, he has only one entry this week. Ruby Walsh recently reminded us that he “tipped him four months ago at 25/1 and I’m not going to change my mind now.” This looks like a carefully selected mission.
Not only would a win for such a high-class animal be good for the brand and reputation of the race it would also present an opportunity for some Mayo people to lift a trophy this year. Owned by the family and friends of Michael Masterson, a proud man of Achill who left the island for a builder’s wage in Britain and ended up owning a sizeable construction company and a string of decent racehorses.
The supporters of a five-day festival argue that the quality would not be diluted because only two new races would be needed as four seven-race cards could be rebooted as five sixes. It’s already planned to add a Mare’s Chase to the menu next year and an existing race is to be sacrificed to make way for it. After last year’s self-flagellation the planners are rumoured to be taking a long look at the National Hunt Challenge Cup as a candidate for elimination.
Let’s hope that the powerful combination of the Mullins and Masterson families can deliver a performance that puts paid to all these attempts to solve problems that don’t exist.