There's no need to fear a fifth day of fab Cheltenham Festival
Saturday should be added to schedule whether it's four or five days
The five-day Cheltenham Festival: your legitimate concerns and irrational opinions answered …
If it’s not broken why try to fix it?
Because Cheltenham’s owner, Jockey Club Racecourses, needs to generate extra revenue, not least to prop up prize-money levels which have come under considerable pressure since the widespread closure of betting shops in the wake of the new FOBT stake limits.
How seriously are JCR considering it?
Only they know, but it is interesting that it was not ruled out by new chairman Martin St Quinton in a recent ITV interview given they had always insisted it was not under consideration.
Where would they get all the extra races from?
With the mares’ chase due to be introduced in 2021 they actually need only one additional contest to create five six-race cards. That could be a veterans’ chase or a Grade 1 hurdle over two and a half miles.
But that would just dilute the quality of the Champion and Stayers' Hurdles
Yes it would but it is still illogical that such a race doesn’t exist when there are mid-distance Grade 1s for novice hurdlers and chasers as well as elite chasers.
So presumably you’d finish on the Saturday, which would ruin Uttoxeter’s big day?
Would it? In what way? The courses that currently race during the festival all do extremely well because racegoers turn up to enjoy a local fixture as well as watching and betting on the Cheltenham races. I’d be surprised if Uttoxeter’s crowd was affected and it might just add even more spice to the day. There’s also no reason why ITV shouldn’t show the Midlands National.
But it’s also the Six Nations on that Saturday
So what? The Cricket World Cup final, the British Grand Prix and the men’s final at Wimbledon all took place simultaneously last year and seemed to cope well enough. ITV could bill it as a great day of sport thus building a bigger audience than the midweek cards.
Why does it need to finish on a Saturday anyway?
Because not everyone is able to attend in midweek. I have been astonished at the lack of understanding that it is a big sacrifice for many people to take a day off or use some of their holiday entitlement to go racing. Whether the festival goes to five days or stays at four it should end on a Saturday.
Racing on Saturday would just bring more people who aren’t that interested in the racing
Well pardon them for having the cheek to want to enjoy a day at the races without needing to be able to spell Miinnehoma correctly. And, you never know, they might enjoy it so much they get more into racing and attend and bet on it more regularly.
Why does it always have to be about money?
Well, that is sort of the whole point of these things, albeit JCR needs to ensure it doesn’t do anything with potentially damaging long-term consequences. Because all its profits go back into racing if the fifth day works it could provide a significant financial boost to the sport.
So by that logic they should be looking at a sixth or even seventh day?
Please don’t be so silly. Nobody could possibly make a case for a sixth day.
Should the Gold Cup be run on Saturday then?
No, not for the time being. It’s fine where it is. Just flick the Ryanair to the Saturday, as suggested by my colleague David Jennings this week, and you’ve got a ready-made bill-topper.
Six-race cards offer less value to the racegoer
Yes, they do and this would be my one negative about the whole idea, along with the probable longer gaps between races. However, there is a big difference between a card comprising six moderate races and half a dozen contests of the quality that would compose a fifth day of the festival.
So what’s your view? (Obviously nobody has actually asked this but here it is anyway)
It comes down to whether the financial benefits of an extra day would meaningfully benefit racing in general, particularly in maintaining prize-money in these difficult times. If the numbers stack up it is worth doing. If there is any doubt, make it a Wednesday-to-Saturday schedule to embrace a weekend audience and then assess what the effect of that is.
I think we should go back to three days
Hard yards unappealing for stable staff
Of all the challenges racing faces as it attempts to achieve sustainability and ideally growth, the one that arguably causes most concern is how to maintain adequate staffing levels in stables.
The situation has been referred to as a crisis for a number of years and there are few signs that recruitment and retention are going to get easier rather than harder.
The population is getting heavier, overseas workers are harder to bring in, and the basic structure of most stable roles involves more working days than many people are prepared to tolerate.
I saw a stable job advertised this week. The hours were 7am-1pm and 4-5pm for 12 days on the trot, with every other Saturday afternoon and every other Sunday off.
That equates to 90 hours over two weeks and just one full day off. This is the working pattern for much of the industry.
For some people it is probably the best job in the world. Galloping along on a sunny morning must be a truly uplifting experience and if you get the opportunity to lead your beloved charge around the parade ring at Cheltenham before a big race it has to be an enormous buzz.
But the flipside of that is gloomy mornings riding out in the pouring rain and biting wind aboard a creature that is getting covered in mud that you know will need painstakingly diligent removal.
It is hoped trainers, acutely aware of the difficulties of bringing in and keeping good staff, are looking after their staff as well as possible, albeit the clumsy but eye-opening recent exposure by the National Association of Racing Staff of alleged incidents of poor or downright appalling treatment of staff showed there is still some way to go before standards are as high as they need to be across the board.
Working in a stable is not your average job and it comes with the potential for some moments of true exhilaration, as anyone who has watched scenes of deliriously happy grooms chasing after their pride and joy after they have won a big race can see.
But for as long as racing’s fixture list demands such a big horse population there is tremendous pressure on trainers to generate a large workforce, and, while it must cause many of them acute stress, I can’t help but feel if there was more than one full day off every two weeks on offer it would become a considerably more attractive career.
That would clearly increase costs and some trainers say that would make the difference between them being viable and having to cease trading, but in 2020 it feels like the 12-and-a-half-day fortnight is a major deterrent to working in a racing yard.
Oliver twist just prolonged VAR agony
Michael Oliver has spent many years establishing his reputation as one of the best referees in the world, yet his popularity soared at the weekend for a simple act that you or I could have performed.
To the delight of VAR’s dwindling band of obstinate supporters he used a pitchside monitor to decide whether or not Crystal Palace’s Luka Milivojevic should have been sent off for one of those slow-motion headbutts on Derby’s Tom Huddlestone.
Having initially brandished a yellow card, Oliver was then advised to walk over to have another look for himself, which impressed all those who had wondered why the touchline TVs had yet to be used since VAR was introduced.
Indeed the BBC commentator on duty reacted with the kind of excitement you might associate with a peregrine falcon suddenly landing on the centre circle during a game as Oliver decided to change the yellow for a red.
However, while a dismissal looked a more suitable punishment than a caution, the reality is that by checking the incident himself rather than relying on the view of the video referee Oliver created an unnecessary and frankly exasperating delay for the crowd.
The way to solve the growing VAR shambles is not to waste even more time getting the ref to stroll over to a pitchside monitor, it is to scrap it and allow us to enjoy football as we always did before this nonsense was foisted upon us.
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