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  • Writer's picturePeter McNeile

What makes the USP of a Festival?

Many of the marquee events in racing are multi-day Festival events, assembling consecutive days of elite class racing for huge crowds: the Melbourne Cup, Cheltenham Festival, Royal Ascot, York Ebor Meeting, Galway Festival, and the weekend of the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe.

Even among smaller courses, this trend toward multi-day events is hugely popular, as witnessed by les Trois Glorieuses at Craon in Mayenne, Perth Festival in Scotland and others I haven't yet discovered!

The commercial benefits are evident to all: a boost to local hospitality outlets where overnight accommodation and restaurants can benefit, and a profile that local or regional tourism managers can use to build interest in group tour organisers and the public at large. Festivals are a sign of a happening town.

There are likely scale economies for racecourses too where the cost of temporary facilities can be offset against several days; where staff can be recruited for regular work rather than one-off days, and where track usage can be managed successfully to provide optimal ground conditions.

And yet labelling several days on the trot a Festival is not a route to overnight success. Whatever the quality of the fare on the racecourse itself does not guarantee a huge crowd. And I think there is something of this thinking behind the decision of Britain's Jockey Club not to embark upon a fifth day to the famous Cheltenham Festival.

An actor will tell you always to leave the audience wanting more. Spreading the same horses and races over a wider timeframe might be perceived as a cynical approach to the paying customer, and not reflective of good value. Moins, cela devient plus.

One fixture that has successfully bucked this trend is Ascot, where the Heath day on the Saturday after Royal Ascot was trialled as a Royal Ascot day for the Golden Jubilee, and proved an enormous success. A racing success because of appetite, both within Britain and beyond, for the prestige of an Ascot winner maintained field sizes at healthy levels. A commercial success because it was recognized that the crowd would be more oriented toward public facilities rather than private, club or corporate.

This has always been a foundation stone of the argument that advocates of Cheltenham's fifth day propounded - a day for the working man to attend. This is to ignore the trend toward flexible worktime.

However, where Ascot succeeded, and Cheltenham opted to eschew an extra day, ultimately comes down to the appetite from owners and trainers to send horses, from spectators to attend again or for the first time, and from broadcasters to give the event the oxygen of publicity to win the eye.

At Cheltenham, there is a clear fatigue from the professionals toward extension, and among spectators, many as true fans whom feel obligated to spend more than one day at the sports, and feel an extension would rob them of that opportunity. The number of people who attend all four days of the Festival numbers in the low thousands of the 280,000 overall; everyone is now time-precious, and dare one say it, have other things in their life but horseracing.

By contrast, a regional Festival like Craon's 3 days in September has something for lots of different constituents. Mixed cards on Saturday and Sunday allow for fans of flat, trot and steeplechase to enjoy the races en famille, whilst Monday is largely carved up by a big trotting race and some flat contests. Those audiences are not necessarily the same, so there is room for all without repeating the offer day after day.

Unless there are other ulterior motives for attending a racing Festival than the races, a concentration of excellent entertainment in a single day or days can often make as big an impact, and leave the audience gagging for more. In creating market tension this way, there is no downward pressure on pricing to reach capacity either. Remember the day of the 10 race Cheltenham Festival; few that were there will forget the embarass de richesse. Arc day at Longchamp also does this superbly well.

So 3 cheers to Cheltenham for recognizing the Festival has its limitations. Less in this instance, is undubitably more.

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