Thursday 17 January 2019

Reverting to three-day Festival would enhance Cheltenham's place as the Olympics of jump racing

Robbie Power celebrates with Sizing John after winning the Gold Cup on Friday. Photo: David Davies/PA
Robbie Power celebrates with Sizing John after winning the Gold Cup on Friday. Photo: David Davies/PA
Trainer Jessica Harrington. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Michael Verney

Michael Verney

I worry about how diluted the Cheltenham Festival has become, and there's still talk about making it five days. The whole game's gone when that happens," so said the legendary jockey Tony McCoy recently.

As the weights for Cheltenham's ten handicap races were announced on Wednesday morning, McCoy's thoughts sprung to mind again as it becomes increasingly clear that quantity is trumping quality at the Cotswolds with a mammoth 28 races from start to finish.

When the roar goes up on Tuesday week, a frenetic energy will surround Cheltenham as excitement reaches fever pitch with outstanding equine talent on show at most turns, but several flat spots will be hit en route to Gold Cup day.

Three of the best races of the week (the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, the Arkle and the Champion Hurdle) are completed by 3.35 on Tuesday and at times the Festival can drag, none more so than Thursday.

While it does house the Ryanair Chase and Stayers' Hurdle, a quick glance through Thursday's card often leaves many punters without the Festival feel - and with significantly less in their pockets - and this has regularly been the case since the fourth day was added in 2005.

Its status as the Olympics of jump racing is in no doubt but bigger is not necessarily better and there was much to admire about how Leopardstown went about their business with this year's inaugural Dublin Racing Festival last month.

Trainer Tony Martin. Photo: Barry Cregg/Sportsfile
Trainer Tony Martin. Photo: Barry Cregg/Sportsfile

Three popular stand-alone fixtures were recycled into two quality days to produce 15 races of immense quality with seven Grade Ones. Rather than risk saturation, excellence underpinned their product rather than expansion.

Tony Martin's recent remarks may have flown under the radar but the Meath trainer was firm in his opinion that the four-day Cheltenham extravaganza is fast becoming "a holiday jamboree" full of "Mickey Mouse races" with no place at the Festival.

"It's a great step forward," Martin said of the Dublin Racing Festival. "You'll attract any good racing man or woman over for the two days, it's well put together. You go along to Cheltenham now and they put in a lot of Mickey Mouse races. You've brought in a lot of races and they're not four Olympic days.

"Take them out, cram the whole three in and add in the Ryanair and the JLT, get rid of whatever other races you want. Leopardstown have done that, it's Grade One racing all the way through whereas Cheltenham might be in name but in theory I don't think it is.

"It's getting like Galway, they're just trying to congest the fixture and get people through the turnstiles. They'd be better off to go back to where they were and go back to three proper Olympic or All-Ireland days instead of trying to make a holiday jamboree out of it and have four."

Sometimes you have to go back to go forward and while returning to three days might seem like a step in the wrong direction, it might be what's needed to ensure Cheltenham maintains its lustre in the racing world. As McCoy referenced, Cheltenham is more likely to go the other way.

Should that materialise, the increasing trend of Irish trainers keeping some of their best horses on these shores and avoiding the March showpiece may gather more pace with Gold Cup-winning handler Jessica Harrington being a case in point.

Unlike her counterparts Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott, the Moone trainer will never send battalions of horses across the Irish Sea - she runs just five next week but all have live chances including reigning Gold Cup hero Sizing John - instead opting to tackle the increasing prize money available at Spring Festivals in Punchestown and Fairyhouse with the remainder. The Kildare track is Harrington's holy grail.

"People get so focused on Cheltenham, I nearly ruined Forge Meadow there last year, very nearly. She went over there and she just didn't eat, she was very upset the whole time, she ran no race and then this autumn it took three races to get her back on track," she said.

"I'd rather wait and go to Punchestown. To me, Punchestown is where I want to win the most races. When I get to Punchestown, any horse that could possibly qualify for any race will be entered in the race because it's the end of the year and you might as well run.

"I love Punchestown and it's only down the road, they've got half an hour in the box to get there. The thing is, when you go to Cheltenham, a lot of the time you go there and the horse doesn't run again that season, especially the young horses. The travel, the excitement over there, they're stabled in the stable yard. For four- and five-year-olds it takes a lot out of them. A lot of Irish owners would just love to win at the Punchestown Festival, and Fairyhouse."

Champion trainer Willie Mullins doesn't fall in line with Martin's assertions and believes jump racing would not be where it is today without Cheltenham - with its exclusive perch in mid-March gaining maximum publicity - as "it's bringing the sport on way more than any other track can bring it on, it's raising the bar the whole time".

Cheltenham has done wonders for jump racing, and will continue to do so, but others are raising the bar too and the Festival's vice-like grip on jump racing may slip unless Olympic-style standards are maintained.

Irish Independent

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