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  • Writer's picturePeter McNeile

Has the Cheltenham Festival peaked?

In the British and Irish Jump racing calendar, the Festival has been a dominant factor for over 30 years, attracting the best horses, the largest crowds and owners, trainers and riders from all over the world. And in five weeks, in time-honoured fashion, it's about to do so all over again in one of the rites of Spring.

A total in excess of £4.8m will be offered across the 28 races that now comprise the showpiece for the sport worldwide. But beneath the veneer of unfettered success, is the Festival's pre-eminence as unassailable as always?

Perhaps not.

The nineties and first two decades of the new millennium saw unprecedented growth in the Festival, as crowds grew in parallel with ticket prices, as new grandstands were added to Cheltenham's impressive estate, and as finally, after much discussion, a fourth day was added to make the event a Tuesday - Friday affair. It seemed that the goliath that is Cheltenham consumed everything before it.

And generally, that dominance was well accepted by other racecourses. A senior executive at Ascot was heard to mention that Ascot was competing for second place in the race to lead the winter sport. There was clear blue water between Cheltenham and everyone else across the UK, Ireland, even France where, despite spectacular prize money, crowds are a poor comparison even for the best fixtures.

Indeed, many racecourses have been a party to this continuing dominance, staging successful Trials events to provide opportunities for improving types to polish up their act before the main event. The story of the "road to Cheltenham" even underlies several lucrative sponsorship solutions for the likes of Unibet, Glenfarclas Whisky, JCB and Ballymore.

Minella Indo asserts Irish authority over Cheltenham - March 2021
Minella Indo asserts Irish authority over Cheltenham - March 2021

It is, however, a trait among the British in particular, to do down those that have succeeded a little too well. A view among racegoers, industry professionals, and other racecourses, that "the season is not just about the Festival" is getting louder. Just a fortnight ago, senior trainer Edward O'Grady admonished the Festival as a "commercial jamboree". This, combined with some other critical factors, means Cheltenham will have to innovate again to stretch the baying pack of chasing hounds.

The best bloodlines are in Ireland

Measure up the top 10 leading sires in the sport, and you'll discover that a majority stand in Ireland, and among those that don't, several are dead. In short, control of the best bloodlines is in Ireland, and it is amongst Irish breeders and consignors that release of that talent to a UK market can be made. Small wonder then that the pick of the crop remains in Ireland.

The dominance of the Irish

Time was, back in the early eighties, when Cheltenham saw virtually no Irish success. How the tables have been turned. Last year, just four of the 28 contests were won by British-trained horses - a smarting humiliation that had many rushing for knee-jerk change. Yet this is a situation that has not appeared overnight.

The Irish renaissance at Cheltenham began in the boom years of the Celtic Tiger. Horses like Istabraq, Kicking Kick and Limestone Lad re-created the glory days, and those achievements were magnified by a string of supporting noise and value from Irish-based sponsors of Cheltenham: Smurfit Kappa, Irish Independent, Irish Times, Paddy Power. Suddenly, everyone who was anyone had to be at Cheltenham in March.

Ireland has always been an export nation of bloodstock, not unlike the French now. However, when the Queen's shilling came visiting, every horse was for sale. The growth of wealth in Ireland precipitated a retention of the best horses to beat the British at their own game, continued even after the Irish economic bubble burst.

There are now more Irish horses competing at Cheltenham that ever before, magnified some 30% more than in the 3 day Festival. Even some of the biggest British owners now have horses trained in Ireland to make the pilgrimage.

Concentration of power among the super-wealthy

At the same time, the top echelon of the sport is now dominated by a clique of super-wealthy owners, whose legions populate every race. Once upon a time, the only person to fulfil this role was the munificent J P McManus, but the growth of Gigginstown in particular has been both a success story, but also a challenge to compete against.

Among trainers in Ireland, if you are not a customer of one of the top flight of owners, your chances of winning the best bloodstock at auction are severely hampered. Whilst the dream is of a rags-to-riches purchase like Norton's Coin or Dream Alliance, the reality is that money counts.

In the sale ring, British trainers are being regularly outbid by horses headed back to Ireland, or remaining there. And there are perhaps just two UK trainers with the financial backing to outbid the Irish players: Nicky Henderson and Paul Nicholls. Increasingly, racing's top table is a slugging match between the big four wallets of Nicholls, Henderson, Elliott and Mullins. The rest are hoping for the one that got away.

This then has become something of a disincentive to run in a Grade I race where you can be sure to meet a blue-blood from the best stock and a reputation to match. And it also reflects on the spectator appeal; everyone loves the success of a small-time owner - a reflection of how they see themselves, the recurrent Festival dream that sets the winter game apart from the Flat.

Death by a thousand cuts

The success of the Festival has also spawned plenty of copycat events. On their own, none stands against the cumulative weight of the Festival, but individually, they chip away at the competitive nature of the supporting card at Cheltenham.

Owners now have viable and lucrative alternatives to choose from. The Midlands Grand National draws runners from the Ultima Handicap Chase and other races; Kempton's card on the Saturday provides other valuable alternatives too.

None of this is contrary to the laws of competition. Cheltenham has no God-given right to host only the best. But in the light of the dominance of Irish horses, some British owners are voting with their feet and looking for lower profile pickings elsewhere.

Race programme plays to Irish strengths

Great attention to the horse population was paid in the delivery of the fourth day to the Festival back in 2005. There were risks attached to adding a 3m Novice Hurdle, a 2m 5f Novice Chase, and the 2m5f Ryanair Chase, each of which had the propensity to divide the available fields for pre-existing Grade I races.

In a situation where the horse population has come under extreme pressure during the Covid shutdown, and is already well stretched across the number of other fixtures at large, it shouldn't surprise anyone that the number of horses running in these graded races is at its lowest.

Twenty years ago, the idea that the Supreme Novices, Ballymore or Triumph Hurdle would attract single figure fields, would have been laughed out of court. Yet that is the case; it is time for retrenchment to win back the quality of these events. Quantity is not everything; it's time for a reduction in the number of races.

But contrarily, since 2005, more races have been added, lobbied by a series of pressure groups. The addition of seventh races was supported by a Tote, anxious to find four more routes to part 50,000 spectators with money; the Mares' races by a breeding industry wanting to promote British bloodstock. The result is a glut of races that are both uncompetitive and not of the standard one expects of Cheltenham.

And ironically, the addition of these races at the Festival merely stands to accelerate the Irish dominance because it mirrors their own race programme. It will be some time before the British breeding sector can deliver the goods to win these races. The reality is that whilst British bloodstock will, in theory, be showcased at the world's greatest Jumps fixture, the chance that a British-bred runner would win would be much enhanced at a lower profile event.

Bold price points

Based on the sell-out signs for tickets at this year's Festival, the appetite to attend the event from the general public is undiminished. At the time of writing, the only tickets available are in hospitality.

Yet talk to any trainer, and they will talk of eye-watering pricing for restaurant places that until 10 years ago could be bought for £250. The loyal audience that attends Cheltenham covers a wide demographic, many of whom have no interest in smart cookie celebrity chefs. Cheltenham is not Epsom or Ascot. The course runs a risk of alienating the very audience that helped create its pre-eminence. It's a very fine line to tread.

The renaissance of Aintree

A younger generation of spectators would find if hard to credit that Aintree was virtually a lost cause in the late seventies. As Red Rum lit up the Liverpool story, the racecourse was a mess, saved only by a public lottery run by the Jockey Club, to establish a secure ownership of the world's greatest steeplechase.

There have been plenty of other dramas along the way for Aintree, not least the void National and the bomb scare, but latterly, Aintree has begun to assert itself. The £1m Grand National is surrounded by a richly-endowed programme that offers viable alternatives to meeting the Irish at Cheltenham. And Liverpool, whilst attracting Irish runners, has less of a heritage of Irish support, even if they have lifted the Grand National in four of the last five runnings.

It's commonly heard now that trainers may swerve Cheltenham to concentrate on Aintree. The courses are of completely different configurations, but there are comparable races often which may not be adopted by an Irish horse whose owners prefer to focus on the Punchestown Festival after Cheltenham.

What to do?

It's healthy to see competition applied to the market that will allow other racecourses to invest and grow their fixtures, even at the expense of the sport's self-appointed HQ. The sport has never been about one meeting, or one racecourse.

But Cheltenham has a long history of innovation, which has brought us, in our lifetimes, the creation of the four day Festival, the birth of cross country racing in the UK, the spawning of the biggest hospitality event in the British social and sporting calendar. And it is in innovation that Cheltenham will rise still further and deliver again.

Let the horsemen control the argument and not the accountants. For through them, we will re-engage the debate and Cheltenham will once again pull effortlessly away to re-assert its supremacy.

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