top of page
  • Writer's picturePeter McNeile

Is Aintree usurping Cheltenham's position in the hierarchy?

Spring has come, and with it, two of global horseracing's best attended events in the Cheltenham Festival and Aintree Grand National meeting. Seven days' racing between the two venues generate something of the order of 400,000 spectator visits.

That there are still horseracing events that command this level of footfall is to be celebrated, not least when the two events in question stage a peripheral sport on the global racing stage. Jump racing might be hugely popular in Britain and Ireland, but beyond France and the eastern seaboard of the USA, other outposts of the sport are few and far between. The sport is an anomaly.

The loyalty of their respective audiences is also reflected in the post-event discussion on social channels and in mainstream published media, and reflects a change in the balance of power in the British jump racing hierarchy. It appears that Aintree is in the ascendant, and Cheltenham on the wane.

Cheltenham has enjoyed some 30 years of unfettered growth; growth in footfall, overall popularity and promotion to the mainstream of the British social calendar; growth in the prize funds of its, now, 28 races across 4 days. But it appears to have reached a crossroads, where dilution of the quality of its races, combined with an assumption that its customers will keep coming back for more, has met an economic environment in which customers' leisure spend has had to be curtailed. For the second year in succession, footfall is down at Cheltenham, albeit from spectacular highs.

By contrast, Aintree, coming from a lower base, is still powering ahead. The prize money and a more modest invasion of horses from Ireland has allowed the fixture to present highly competitive races in front of a largely partisan Merseyside crowd, whereas Cheltenham draws on a wider geographical reach.

The dominance of Cheltenham's graded races by a clique of high-spending owners is also in part an obstacle to its continued appeal. Syndicate - owned horses, often not quite out of the top drawer, always liked the idea of running at Cheltenham, as part of "being there". Winners like Harry Hastings (33/1), Norton's Coin (100/1) and Limestone Lad carried the support of the little men of the sport, presented as giant slayers in contemporary racing culture. These horses now get less of a look-in, meaning that the winner's enclosure feels like an exclusive club populated by billionaires only. It's become less relatable.

A further reason for the curtailment of Cheltenham has little to do directly with the racecourse. The town of 130,000 has accommodation for any normal-sized event, like its literature festival, but the influx of sub-contractors as well as spectators, sends the cost of accommodation sky-high. Hoteliers are guilty of stagging prices in an attempt to shore up their own finances - lean after a long winter. Spectators faced with the cost of admission and catering prices on the racecourse are faced with a further substantial cost just to lay their heads on a pillow, unlike a majority of Liverpudlians, who are single day racegoers.

It's been the best part of 40 years since the nation dipped in its pocket to save the National, a campaign run by the Jockey Club to prevent the world's most famous steeplechase from disappearing under a welter of residential housing. Aintree's recent growth has been accelerating, and its profile increasing. All of a sudden, it's no longer a given that Cheltenham will rule the roost.

Albeit that the two courses are in the same ownership, this healthy competition is excellent for the sport. Whilst Cheltenham remains a banker for the financial well-being of the Jockey Club, Aintree's success may well enable it to be less reliant upon its cash cow.

Meantime, the management of Cheltenham will be conducting a thorough review from top to bottom. Don't expect a reversion to a three day Festival; that genie is out of the bottle for good. However, some pruning of the race programme might raise the quality once again to something approaching its former peerless best. There are races in the current programme which have no right to be part of the best four days racing in the Jumps calendar.

Let's hope in the meantime that Aintree's guardians don't over-egg the pudding and learn the lesson that less is more.

2 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page