Dan Sheridan/INPHO The possibility of the Cheltenham Festival moving to five days was not discounted earlier this week.
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Johnny Ward: Cheltenham should be careful what it wishes for with five-day debate
Our columnist on the prospect of change for the March racing showpiece.

“I’VE BEEN TO The Nam,” a battered excuse for a man once said on returning to his home country.


I can relate: by my mid-30s I already wasn’t able for the candle burning at both ends come the Cheltenham Festival.

Even the year the high winds forced an abandonment (2008), I remember waking up the morning of the cancellation and not being exactly crestfallen when I heard we’d have a day off.

Cheltenham is the pivot event for the National Hunt campaign and, whilst it can be a bit tiresome to hear antepost quotes for some race or other immediately after a victory months in advance, the season is all the better for its narrative.

Cheltenham is where heroes are immortalised. It is easier to remember horses who prevail in a handicap at the Cheltenham Festival than it is those who win Grade 1s at Aintree a month later.

Fair enough: not everyone was always catered for. A horse who immediately springs to mind is Native Upmanship, who did not stay the Gold Cup trip but was a shade too slow to beat Moscow Flyer in the Queen Mother. The Ryanair Chase would have been made for him, but let’s look at Dawn Run.

Everyone remembers Dawn Run, even those born after she was dead. She won the Champion Hurdle and the Gold Cup, an achievement utterly extraordinary without even allowing for her having to do it as a mare.

jon-jo-oneil-and-dawn-run-1986 Allsport / INPHO Jonjo O'Neill and Dawn Run at Cheltenham in 1986 Allsport / INPHO / INPHO

Not for her the option of the mares’ hurdle, the mares’ novice hurdle or the Ryanair Chase or the Diet Whatever You’re Having Yourself. She had to take on the best at the minimum trip hurdling and the longest trip over which a Grade 1 chase is run.

Not only her virtuosity made her a legend: she did what she did at a time when Ireland was crippled by recession and when there was bugger all to be happy about. Except getting the boat to Cheltenham.

Horses really should not be going off odds-on at Cheltenham year on year unless they are extraordinarily talented. Quevega mopped up the mares’ race there but we will never really know how good Quevega was because she avoided geldings as much as possible. More is the shame.

Laurina looked a monster in the mares’ novice hurdle at Cheltenham two years ago but she was a 4/7 chance and it was hardly a spectacle worthy of a Festival where the best ought to take on the best. She hammered Minella Indo at Gowran on their chase debuts: clearly she can beat the best males but Cheltenham allows her to avoid them.

Honeysuckle, at least to this observer, could be every bit as good as Dawn Run. For a mare who quacks like an out-and-out chaser, her hurdling performances look quite extraordinary, and if she were going for the Champion Hurdle, I am quite certain she and fellow-mare Epatante would be disputing favouritism. Instead, Henry De Bromhead is angling towards the mares’ hurdle with her.

Think about Rachael Blackmore’s progress this year. Would anyone really care if she were dominating in lady riders’ races but cutting no ice against the lads? And that’s without a mare’s allowance!

rachael-blackmore-on-honeysuckle-on-her-way-to-winning-the-race Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Rachael Blackmore on Honeysuckle on the way to victory at Fairyhouse Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

The public can only love a mare once she beats the boys and the possibility of the Festival yawning towards five days was not exactly discounted earlier this week by new Cheltenham racecourse chairman, Martin St Quinton.

“We’re very happy with our four-day Festival at the moment, but we’re always keen to look at ways of innovating and improving things and widening the appeal of racing,” he said.

“I wouldn’t rule anything in but I wouldn’t rule anything out. It would get a lot of opposition, but people don’t like change.

“People complained when it went from three days to four, but now everybody loves the four-day Festival,” he said, which is clearly not the case.

“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.”

Saturday might be Royal Ascot’s most popular day. It is also Punchestown’s most popular day. If Cheltenham are governed merely by what is popular – ie money-making – the Festival is well on the way to losing its soul.

No doubt more money could be made by the owners of Cheltenham, who are doing very well. The event brings in more than £20m through ticket sales, hospitality, sponsorship and other income; in theory, with a fifth day, that could be £25m.

However, what was the wholesome ale of the three days now feels like a beer shandy. The magic is not quite what it was; a fifth day would make it closer to a Heineken Zero.

There are 28 races at Cheltenham right now. You could easily get rid of four and revert to the three-day meeting that was far closer to perfect than the four-day diluted affair we now have.

It won’t happen. Five days would render it ever closer to the Galway Festival or the Listowel Festival, such that the racing is more of an aside.

Gigginstown’s Eddie O’Leary is dead against the fifth day, cautioning that it is “nobody’s idea, just speculation”. Perhaps he is right. But Cheltenham should be careful what it wishes for.

Naas’ wish that Envoi Allen would tog out for its feature meet Sunday has been granted. He is without doubt the star billing in the Grade 1 Lawlor’s Of Naas Novice Hurdle (2.20), a race diluted because it is so close to Leopardstown, but this is not Cheltenham and we can live with that.

davy-russell-on-envoi-allen-on-his-way-to-winning-the-race Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Davy Russell on Envoi Allen on his way to victory at Fairyhouse in December Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

They begin with the Irish Stallion Farms EBF Mares Beginners Steeplechase (12.50) in which Caravation, whilst not up to Good Thyne Tara’s level hurdling, is a confident choice to master her in this sphere.

In the Adare Manor Opportunity Handicap Hurdle (3.20), it is hard to see how Fox Le Bei can be beaten for JP McManus.

At Dundalk this evening, Gavin Ryan begins life post Jim Bolger, having joined none other than Donnacha O’Brien, who is not much older than him. In tonight’s Happy New Year From Dundalk Stadium Handicap (5.00), the reapplied hood and class-drop render Hit The Silk really interesting under Ryan.

In the nightcap, the Crowne Plaza Hotel Race & Stay Handicap (8.30) looks Asanda’s for the taking.

That race has been divided to cater for the overload of low-grade horses wanting a run on the all-weather at the moment.

Cheltenham needs to stop catering for inferior horses so it can make more profit catering for the corporates.

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