RacingOdds and Sods

Spectators voting with their feet as Cheltenham’s competitive appeal gets spread too thin

2023 festival had over 40,000 fewer fans through the gates than in 2022

The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia once said that too much of a good thing is just right, a sentiment that might once have seemed to apply to the Cheltenham Festival, but which race fans now seem to be voting against with their feet.

It has emerged that while ‘full house’ signs are on the verge of being put on Gold Cup day in four weeks’ time, ticket sales for the festival’s first three days are, to use a commercial buzzkill of a word, lagging.

It’s quite different from when a record 280,627 packed into Prestbury Park for 2022′s post-pandemic blowout. It got so crammed that the decision was taken to cap attendance at the festival to 68,500 per day. Some worried it might prove a financial own goal. They needn’t have.

Gold Cup day was full last year but over 40,000 less people attended throughout the festival compared to 2022. Any post-pandemic bounce vanished with a vengeance. Day Three was 90 per cent of capacity, Day One was 88 per cent. Wednesday was a stark 74 per cent.


Admittedly, the 2022 spike might have been due to widespread desperation for a return to normal after the pandemic. There were also industrial strikes last year that didn’t help. Weather conditions always play a role too in racing footfall.

However, with just 18 days to the start of the biggest meeting of the year, there’s little evidence of a rally. The Gold Cup was sold out by the end of January last year. Not even the prospect a 100th ‘Blue Riband’ appears to have fans queuing around the corner this time. The other days are, well, lagging.

It has got racing authorities across the Irish Sea anxiously trying to figure out the reasons for such a dip. Cheltenham is the jewel in racing’s crown. It’s when even the most indifferent observers take notice. And the lure of experiencing it first-hand had always looked to be sacrosanct.

Much of the analysis has revolved around how expensive going to the festival can be. A single day’s club enclosure ticket is €130. That’s before the cost of food or drink, never mind having a bet, and all of it in a heaving environment where queuing is the surest of sure things.

There were queues too at the Dublin Racing Festival earlier this month but a common theme among UK racegoers who made up almost 38 per cent of the Leopardstown attendance was that it was still a lot more comfortable, and a considerably cheaper experience compared to Cheltenham.

It probably helped too that the DRF is over two days. It has become nothing unusual for even traditional Irish race fans to now go to Cheltenham for just half the festival. Four days is quite a commitment, in time as much as financial terms.

Cheltenham officials are pinning their faith in a late surge as patterns suggest racegoers aren’t buying in advance as much as they used to. They might be right about that, except the suspicion remains that much of all this skirts around a central issue of how the festival’s sporting appeal is slipping.

If the cliche is that Cheltenham is jump racing’s annual Olympics, it is now reaping the dividend of having spread its competitive appeal too thinly. The festival goose isn’t killed, but its golden eggs don’t seem so enticing anymore, perhaps because there really can be too much of a good thing.

If the competitive and sporting attraction of an event is big enough, cost is rarely an issue. There is abundant evidence of public readiness to cough up to watch, first-hand, the best of the best taking each other on when it counts.

Cheltenham remains a huge ‘event’ that attracts huge TV audiences throughout these islands. But footfall through the gates is a core indicator of any sport’s appeal and wellbeing. Alarm bells should be ringing about falling figures and what they say about the festival’s competitive pull.

Too much of Cheltenham has become an exercise in slaloming around the various options generated by increasing the festival to four days. Extra races have created more opportunities for a handful at the top to exploit.

However, blaming Willie Mullins, Nicky Henderson, and Gordon Elliott for doing what’s best for themselves and their owners is a pointless exercise. They are playing the game the way it is mapped out.

But the festival’s design now appears to be wonky enough for a lot of people to say thanks, but no thanks. It isn’t worth expensive ticket prices, bad Guinness, rip-off accommodation, and trying to predict the fluctuating mood of coked-up morons on their ‘Peaky Blinder’ day-out at the races.

Considering the last six months have been little more than hors d’oeuvres for the Cheltenham main course, it could be reasonably presumed that the upcoming four festival days would be gobbled up immediately by a racing public desperate to witness first-hand one of sport’s great occasions.

That it hasn’t happened strikes to the heart of how a vital competitive ingredient is missing on a bloated festival menu. That too many are prepared to turn their noses up at the situation and say enough is enough is far from groovy.

Something for the Weekend

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