Willie Mullins not in favour of five-day Cheltenham Festival

Eddie O’Leary of Gigginstown Stud calls on Cheltenham to drop Champion Bumper

Adding another day to the Cheltenham programme could draw a crowd in the region of 65,000. File photograph: Getty

Adding another day to the Cheltenham programme could draw a crowd in the region of 65,000. File photograph: Getty

 

Willie Mullins has poured cold water on suggestions the Cheltenham Festival could be extended to five days in future.

The festival’s most successful ever trainer fears that increasing the number of races required to fill out five days might devalue National Hunt racing’s showpiece event.

“From a trainer’s point of view we should be looking for six days. But I don’t think it’s ready for five days. I don’t know if it will ever be ready for five.

“You would be talking about filling up on handicaps which devalues the whole thing, I think,” said Mullins on Monday.

Speculation on the possibility of a fifth day at Cheltenham reopened on New Year’s Day when the track’s new chairman did not rule it out sometime in the future.

Martin St Quinton said: “It [a fifth day] would get a lot of opposition, but people don’t like change. People complained when it went from three days to four but now everyone loves the four-day festival.

“Royal Ascot was very similar with the Heath meeting on the Saturday and now that is their most popular day so you’ve got to be open minded about these things.”

Cheltenham extended to four days in 2005 and last year the total attendance was just short of 267,000 people. Adding another programme could draw a crowd in the region of 65,000.

Ticket prices on the day for the first three programmes of the 2020 festival start from £50 (€59). Prices for Gold Cup day are advertised to start from £70.

Quinton’s remarks have prompted a generally negative response. And Mullins – who has saddled 65 festival winners in all, including in last year’s Gold Cup with Al Boum Photo – is also sceptical.

“Who wants five days?” he asked. “A lot of people don’t even do four days now. They always take a day off.”

Michael O’Leary’s Gigginstown Stud team has been one of the most successful operations at Cheltenham over the last decade. The Ryanair chief executive won the first two renewals of the Leading Owner award, including 2018 when he had seven winners.

On Monday Gigginstown spokesman Eddie O’Leary disputed whether there is any demand within racing for a fifth day. He said he wasn’t in favour of extending the meeting, but stressed that if customer demand for that develops it will end up catered for.

“All Quinton said was that nothing has been decided and nothing is decided. It’s all a press thing, especially from the Racing Post. In my opinion there is no push to have a five-day Cheltenham,” said O’Leary.

“But the customer gets what the customer wants. If over time the customer demands five days they will go to five days. Am I in favour of that? No,” he added.

A more immediate consideration for the Cheltenham authorities is deciding which race it will drop from the festival calendar in order to accommodate a new mares chase which is set to be staged in 2021.

A decision won’t be made until the summer but races such as the Fred Winter Hurdle, Kim Muir Chase or long-distance National Hunt have been mooted as possibles to face the chop.

O’Leary, however, has definite views on which race should go – if one has to be dropped.

“Should there be a 2½ mile mares chase? Absolutely. Which race would I drop for it? The bumper, without a shadow of a doubt. It shouldn’t be there. Last year’s bumper was very strong. The results from it are fantastic. There are four or five Grade One winners from it already, but I’ve seen more horses ruined in that race than have been helped.

“You can have a bumper anywhere you want. Do you need one at Cheltenham? No. Personally, though, I would just add the mares race as a seventh race on the day,” he said.

What of Douvan?

Separately, Willie Mullins said on Monday that the injury-plagued Douvan will miss the upcoming Dublin Racing Festival but could still make Cheltenham.

Douvan returned to action after a 569-day layoff to win at Clonmel in November but was forced to miss Christmas with a leg problem.

Prior to Clonmel the former dual-Cheltenham festival winner had run just twice in 2018 following a long layoff due to a pelvic injury sustained in the 2017 Champion Chase.

“He won’t make the Dublin Racing Festival so we’re striving to go to Cheltenham and Punchestown, ” said Mullins.

“He had a little operation before Christmas on his hind leg which is a totally new problem. The return time should be quick we’re told but we’ll have to see how he gets on,” he added.

Another Rich Ricci-owned star, Benie Des Dieux, also missed Christmas and once again could make her first start of this season at Cheltenham.

Last year Benie Des Dieux looked set to successfully defend her OLBG Mares Hurdle crown at the festival only to dramatically fall at the last. She subsequently won at Punchestown and landed the French Champion Hurdle in impressive style at Auteuil.  

“She just wasn’t ready enough for Christmas but she’s fine. She could go to the Dublin Racing Festival, or Gowran, or straight to the festival like last year. The Mares Hurdle at Cheltenham is our aim,” said Mullins.

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