The recent Cheltenham Festival and has been marked out by some as the greatest of all time with memories of some great racing fresh in the mind. The four days of action at Prestbury Park had a little bit of everything. Vautour and Faugheen confirmed themselves as the superstars of the sport much to the panic of the bookmakers, while the Championship wins of Cole Harden (World Hurdle) and Coneygree (Gold Cup) proved that sometimes the little guys can reach the top with two heart-warming victories.
Attendances on course at Cheltenham were sky high for all four days while the social media activity reached fever pitch each afternoon as racing fans both young and old clambered to get their opinion out their as soon as possible.
Should The Festival Be Extended?
Racing fans are already counting down to March 2016 but one question has emerged strongly over the past couple of weeks; Should there be a fifth day at the Cheltenham Festival?
Few questions get racing fans as hot under the collar as this one so we thought it was about time we dug a little deeper into the pros and cons of this burning issue. An argument can be made for both responses to this question with business and tradition set to clash as the future of the sport is decided.
You Can't Have Too Much of A Good Thing!
The 2015 Festival was proof, as if it were needed, that the four day meeting is more popular than ever. The attendance figures continue to be through the roof on course and by and large the quality of the racing remains sky high which is surely all that matters, right?
The introduction of a fourth day to the meeting was criticised by many a decade ago but few would argue against that now so why not add another day? Relatively new races like the Ryanair Chase and the JLT Novices Chase were met with lukewarm responses by racing fans when they were introduced with fears over slipping quality but surely that myth has been well and truly put to bed now.
JLT winners have included Sir Des Champs and more recently the brilliant Vautour, while the Ryanair Chase has been won by Imperial Commander, Albertas Run and Cue Card to name just three horses of the very highest order. Those quality of horses dismiss the dip in quality myth and with that in mind, surely a fifth day would only add to the quality of the racing.
At least one new race at the Festival looks almost inevitable at the 2016 Festival with the Thursday set for an extra contest to replace the Charity race. The general consensus is that the Mares programme needs expanding with both a novice hurdle and a novice chase for the mares suggested by some of our twitter followers recently (See Here). Others were quick to say that a Veterans Chase at the festival would go down a treat and it is hard to argue with that given the popularity of some of the older horses still in training.
They are already three new races that could fit into the schedule while a 2m4f hurdle is also a possibility with plenty of horses having their stamina stretched in the World Hurdle these days. Nicky Henderson was very vocal during the career of Oscar Whisky how he would have loved a 2m4f hurdle at the Festival and he is unlikely to be alone in that opinion.
The handicap contests at the Festival were full up once again this year while they have become increasingly popular with punters with races like the Kim Muir and the Festival Plate firm favourites as we all look to find juicy priced good thing. With that in mind, a new handicap race or two on a fifth day would surely be well supported by trainers and owners with any possibility of any Festival winner greatly appreciated.
In short, there is no doubt that a fifth day would be good for business and the introduction of the fourth day in 2005 suggests that the quality may not dip as some fear. It would bring more money to Cheltenham, potentially more money to the jockeys, trainers and owners while im sure the bookmakers wouldn't sniff at the chance to either boost their coffers further or have another day to win their money back.
A fifth day of the Festival would also give National Hunt racing one more day to show itself off to the wider public. By and large, racing is quite insular and surely the duty of any sport is to grow itself and to attract a wider audience. There were plenty of traditionalist naysayers when T20 cricket was introduced a few years back but the cricket authorities saw a chance to expand their game and they took it with both hands. The Olympics is always adding new sports to its programme, perhaps not always successfully it has to be said, and maybe a fifth day at Cheltenham would do something similar as we look to bring more young people to this wonderful event.
No No No, If Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It!
The counter argument to everything above centres around both tradition and the quality of the racing on show. Some more traditional racing fans wish that the Festival would go back to three days, let alone extend it to five, and they clearly have a point. They are the hardcore day to day fans of the sport so surely we should look after them and listen to their views.
The Cheltenham Festival is known as the Olympics of the National Hunt game so why not make sure that every race is as good as it can be. Lets see all the best horses take each other on rather than avoiding each other which some believe is already happening. Do we need a Supreme Novices Hurdle a Neptune and an Albert Bartlett over three different distances? Some believe that all three races suffer as a result, while similar arguments are made about the Arkle, JLT and RSA Chase and the Champion Chase, the Ryanair and the Gold Cup.
At the moment, we have a championship race on all four days of the festival but which race would highlight the fifth day? Would something like the Ryanair Chase be moved to a headline slot and what impact would that have on World Hurdle Hurdle day which some already believe is the weakest of the entire week.
We have to assume that any fifth day of the Cheltenham Festival would be held on the Saturday which itself brings in problems. At the moment, the Festival is the sole focus of sport in mid-week during March but move it to a Saturday and we risk it being lost in a sea of other events. It will have to compete with a full round of Premier League fixtures, the climax of the Six Nations and maybe the F1 season. How many newspapers will be covering the fifth day at Cheltenham when those sports are going on?
A fifth day would once again mean the punters having to put his hand in his pocket. Would it be stretching it too far for punters to spend more money on paying for another day at the races which isn't cheap when you take into account betting, travel, lunch and extras which soon adds up. Any sport has to be very careful not to take advantage of the only people that matter; the fans.
An extra race next season is almost inevitable on the Thursday and if that proves successful a fifth day at the Festival is surely just a few year's away. Money does tend to talk ultimately and with the four day spectacular never healthier than it is right now, the big wigs are sure to be considering the idea as we speak.
Tell us what you think. Is a fifth scoop of the best sporting event of the year exactly what you need or will an extra helping leave you feeling sick?