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    Reevaluating the Cheltenham Festival is crucial to prevent further decline in its fan base
Reevaluating the Cheltenham Festival is crucial to prevent further decline in its fan base
Jockey Paul Towned at Cheltenham Festival. Source: Visit Cheltenham

Reevaluating the Cheltenham Festival is crucial to prevent further decline in its fan base

The scent of rural areas, wealth, and excitement permeated the parade ring before the Gold Cup, much like it did a century ago when the race was first held. The Gold Cup, a prestigious race that has seen legendary champions like Arkle, Golden Miller, Best Mate, Kauto Star, and Desert Orchid, celebrated its centenary with a truly deserving winner in Galopin Des Champs. Trained by the highly regarded Willie Mullins, Galopin Des Champs, the heavily favoured contender, effortlessly secured consecutive victories in one of steeplechasing's most challenging tests.

Jockey Paul Townend with golden cup. Source: Sport Photo Gallery
Jockey Paul Townend with golden cup. Source: Sport Photo Gallery

Challenges and Considerations for Attendees at the Festival

As they approached the finish line, the only concern for jockey Paul Townend was a riderless horse galloping freely beside him, posing a threat to the winning duo's path. With the first-place finisher well supported by the crowd and the sun finally shining after days of overcast skies, an atmosphere of celebration enveloped the racecourse following the Festival's premier event. Despite the raucous scenes that often follow the race, the Festival's overall state is not as dire as it may seem. Boarding one of the many double-decker buses that transport spectators from Cheltenham Spa station to the racecourse four hours before the start of the races, it was evident that Friday would be busier than the preceding three days. Wednesday's attendance fell worryingly short by 21,729 spectators compared to the Festival's daily capacity of 68,500. Tuesday and Thursday also saw lower attendance figures compared to 2023, a year that already raised concerns about unexpectedly low crowds. It is now crucial for the Jockey Club to recognise and address the significant number of punters who have evidently decided that attending this undeniably enjoyable Festival has become more trouble than it's worth.

Those who have experienced the Festival firsthand are well aware of the expenses and inconveniences associated with travelling to and from the racecourse. They also understand that the high quality of horse racing makes these expenses and inconveniences worthwhile. For those whose budgets do not allow for private helicopter rentals, there are limited options: enduring the overcrowding at a two-platform train station ill-equipped to handle Festival crowds or taking the chance of parking in an understaffed and problematic car park that can be extremely difficult to leave, especially in the event of heavy rainfall.

Willie Mullins. Source: Dundalk Democrat
Willie Mullins. Source: Dundalk Democrat

Ways to Attract Racegoers

More knowledgeable members of the racing community have highlighted how small fields and a lack of competition in races deter racegoers. The dominance of a small group of trainers, with Willie Mullins being the foremost among them, supported by wealthy owners, does little to increase the sport's appeal. When victory for a horse trained by Paul Nicholls and owned by a consortium that includes Sir Alex Ferguson is considered a triumph for the underdog, it is evident that something is seriously amiss. Kevin Blake, an ITV racing pundit and an ardent student and lover of the sport, has long been advocating for viable solutions to address these issues. While some owners and trainers may not approve of his ideas, their disapproval does not prevent them from sending horses to Cheltenham every year.

Apart from the race schedule, the Jockey Club should prioritise finding ways to reduce the cost of attending a day at Prestbury Park to attract former racegoers and newcomers back to a track where everything from tickets to food, drinks, and even racecards comes at a steep price. Supporters of the establishment have argued that admission to a day of Festival racing is not more expensive than attending an FA Cup final or a day of Test cricket, but such comparisons fail to consider the overwhelming lack of alternative options in the vicinity. The cost of attending events at Wembley or Lord's is also exorbitant, but at least these sporting venues are located in cities that offer a wide range of choices. The same cannot be said of a field situated a few miles outside a provincial town in Gloucestershire, where every March, local hoteliers, Airbnb hosts, restaurateurs, publicans, and shopkeepers welcome a captive audience and are unapologetic about charging inflated prices. Lowering prices to make the Festival more affordable seems like a much more feasible solution than attempting to dethrone Mullins, who has established his own personal English empire atop Cleeve Hill. Despite the mixed emotions his relentless success evokes among fans of the sport, Mullins is an immensely likeable, unassuming, and accessible individual.

Mullins and his team will undoubtedly continue to dominate in the coming years, but just like the riderless horse that posed a threat to one of his greatest triumphs, the Cheltenham Festival's popularity among the general public could go either way.

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