Tuesday 21 November 2017

Money talks and money wants bigger and bolder

Any further expansion of the Cheltenham Festival could dilute the fare on offer, writes Ian McClean

Ian McClean

C an you have too much of a good thing? Combing through the glowing embers of Cheltenham, many are referring to this year as the 'Feelgood Festival'.

Just one horse fatality over four days and 27 chapters of intense combat without a serious accidents to report amongst the riders; 14-13 in a Ryder Cup style climax to the compulsory, and compulsive, Anglo-Irish rivalry; and a Gold Cup narrative of Corinthian triumph inspiring the young pretender Long Run to overthrow his declining-yet-gallant forebears.

Cheltenham supremo Edward Gillespie claims he has never known his email so quiet after a Festival. There was nothing to complain about. So with the Festival's stock at an all-time high, the question is where to from here?

I was against the move to four days (from three) six years ago on the basis that you don't try to improve on a masterpiece but left this year wondering how such relentless drama could be shoe-horned into fewer days. The purity of the quality of the old three-day format is certainly compromised -- even Willie Mullins admits the mares' race this year was an egg-and-spoon affair outside of Quevega. But I find myself welcoming the cup-of-tea races where you can get a quick breather from the intensity of pure championship fare. A bit like freewheeling down the Cheltenham hill, it certainly helps you better get the trip.

Cheltenham will not be leaving the formula as it is however. By moving from three days to four, it has succeeded in adding 70,000 more paying guests. It is now bigger, brasher and bolder than it has ever been. And it is hungry for more. Indeed it gives lie to the state of the industry, a fact not lost on Gillespie: "People shouldn't mistake the health of the Festival for the strength of National Hunt as a whole. You don't want the Festival to become like the Boat Race, which is the one day in the year when most people take any interest in rowing."

While Gillespie is not yet entertaining ideas of moving to a five-day affair -- describing it as "nowhere near our agenda" (though significantly not off it) -- he does incline towards a seven-race programme on each of the four days, beginning with the almost certain addition of another race on Thursday from next year.

Those opposing the Cheltenham brand line extension cynically embrace the Lady Rider Filly & Mare Novice Foxhunters Cross Country Stayers Bumper idea, but the race is more likely to be either a three-and-a-half-mile Grand National Trial, a mares bumper or -- the front-runner at this stage -- a two-and-a-half-mile championship hurdle race. Such a race this year could have been the target for Solwhit and Celestial Halo.

However, it is facile to argue that by putting on the right extra race you are simply adding an extra dimension to the Festival without admitting you are unquestionably diluting its quality. Many will argue that the addition of the Jewson this year augmented the Festival.

They will contest that Noble Prince wouldn't have won either an Arkle or an RSA so it serves as an ideal for in-between horses. And that grand old stager Native Upmanship might have won at three Festivals had the Jewson been there for him. But this ignores that but for the fact the Whateleys had Wishfull Thinking

in their ownership as a favourite for the race, that Captain Chris would have run in the Grade Two

Jewson rather than winning the Grade One Arkle. Moreover, Arkle favourite Medermit was just the toss of a coin away from being diverted to the same race.

Whatever its merits, the Arkle is diminished by the presence of the Jewson and the Champion Hurdle (and indeed the World Hurdle) will be diminished if a championship two-and-a-half-miler is added next year.

And, running it forward, now you have a situation where a mare like Quevega could conceivably run in four races at the Festival. Whereas before the introduction of the mares' race, she would only have had the choice of two -- and how much would the Champion or World Hurdle have been enriched by her presence? Versus the walkover she experienced as easiest winner of the Festival.

The Cheltenham executive is in an enviable position in contrast to most of the industry. But it has choices to make. In the race between commercialism and idealism, it is always long odds on commercialism. And when all is said and done, however you rationalise it, the bottom line will always be the bottom line.

Sunday Indo Sport

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