by Nicholas Cooper, ROA President
What do we know about the Cheltenham Festival? We know it is the outstanding success story of British horseracing and that during these magnificent four days in the Cotswold countryside well over 250,000 people will descend on a racecourse whose name has become synonymous with all that is great and exciting about jump racing.
We know, for those not lucky enough to experience Cheltenham’s unique atmosphere at first hand, TV coverage will allow several million of them to soak up the brilliant sport, entertained and informed this year by a new ITV Racing team that must be anticipating the third week in March with a mixture of excitement and trepidation.
We know no other event has a greater draw for punters and that betting shops will be packed to the gunnels like at no other time of the year, while millions of computer and mobile phone screens will be flashing up odds as the phenomenon of online betting grips the gambling nation.
We know that it has become that rare event in horseracing that goes beyond the racing parish so it occupies a place in the public consciousness comparable with the likes of Wimbledon, the open golf and Formula 1, with its influence becoming so strong that it acts as a promotional tool for racing generally in a way that, in our world, only the Grand National and Royal Ascot can match.
We know, for the horses and horsemen, no event in the jump racing calendar compares with the Cheltenham Festival, and that the moment a horse wins a decent quality chase or hurdle from November onwards the question on everyone’s lips is inevitably: ‘Is this a Cheltenham horse?’
We know, so strong has the draw of the Festival become, the meeting has introduced a new expression into racing as some commentators are now asking whether the jumps season has become too ‘Cheltenham-centric’ and whether the habit of ‘saving’ horses for Cheltenham takes too much competition away from some of the earlier major meetings.
We know for some time there has been an increasing tendency for trainers to avoid taking on horses of comparable class until the championship races and that you have only to look at some of the tiny fields running for excellent price-money at Sandown and Newbury in February to see there is some truth in this.
We know the days of campaigning horses like the triple Champion Hurdle winner Persian War – who in the late sixties was often asked to carry enormous weights in major handicaps before the successful defence of his Cheltenham crown – have sadly disappeared forever.
We know, for most owners, having a runner, let alone a winner, at the Festival is a huge attraction whatever the prize-money, but, given the colossal sums the meeting generates, we wonder whether the prize-money is actually good enough.
We know Cheltenham publicises their prize-money figures with great fanfare but when total prize-money for the meeting is compared with inflation over the last decade or so it has only just kept up, especially so when allowing for the fact that this total is now spread over four additional races and that some of the Festival’s lesser events have hardly increased at all in actual prize-money terms.
We know the huge profits made by the Festival meeting cannot be seen in isolation and that Cheltenham’s owners, Jockey Club Racecourses – a not-for-profit organisation – spent £45m on the course’s redevelopment three years ago, while some of these profits also need to be used to help underpin their other 13 racecourses.
We know it is likely to be seen as disingenuous to put any sort of cloud over a meeting that is by any measure racing’s biggest success story, but we also know we would be failing in our duty if we did not do our best to ensure owners and all horsemen share proportionately in this success.