Wednesday 24 January 2018

Expansion diluting quality of festival

Gillespie: wants a fifth day Photo: PA
Gillespie: wants a fifth day Photo: PA

Before the dust had settled on the 2011 Cheltenham Festival, the managing director Edward Gillespie yesterday spoke of how it was "odds-on" that another race would be added to the meeting next year to bring the figure for the week to 28.

There are even plans for a £30m Prestbury Park makeover, which would be funded by, wait for it, a fifth day. Honest!

The Cheltenham Festival is the showcase for jump racing's elite talent.

History and tradition decree that it is the premier National Hunt meeting, defined by its championship events and complemented by a worthy supporting card.

The executive seems to have forgotten that.

With the addition of a fourth day in 2005, the Festival ideal is slowly being eroded.

Naturally, those involved will feel that more races at Cheltenham means more chances of a winner there, but the quality of the event is gradually being diluted to an inexcusable degree.

Prior to 2005, the name of every handicap at the Festival, and their winners, rolled off the tongue.

Along with the two amateur races, you had the County, Pertemps and Coral Cup Hurdles, the Mildmay of Flete, Cathcart and William Hill Chases -- all hard won and prestigious contests.

Without meaning to put a dampener on last week's incredible blitz, which was a much-needed shot in the arm for the industry in this country, the fact of the matter is, just four days later, you'd struggle to name all the handicaps that were run last Thursday, never mind the whole week.

Rejoicing in each of the Irish triumphs will live long in the memory, but many of the horses which won those middling handicaps will never be heard of again.

The extent of Cheltenham's skewed thinking can be found in the kind of race that is on the shortlist to be added to proceedings.

One is a Grand National Trial -- ergo another handicap for slow horses -- while Robert Waley-Cohen, owner of Long Run and the new chairman at Cheltenham, yesterday expressed his desire for a new novice hurdle for fillies, one that would start as a Grade Two, "and then hopefully attract the class of filly to become a Grade One."

Maybe he was caught up in all the build-up to the Gold Cup, but Mr Waley-Cohen might have missed that on Tuesday Quevega sauntered home for a third time in yet another poorly contested Grade Two mares' race.

Now, Quevega is a wonderful mare, but where exactly are all these classy fillies going to come from for a mares' novice race? The mind boggles.

As some great races reminded us last week, Cheltenham has something special, intangible almost, that needs to be protected, not compromised.

By all means tinker in the name of progress -- and there is plenty that needs tinkering with -- but a policy based fundamentally on more is not the answer.

That ideal is already catered for at Galway every summer.

Irish Independent

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