• Fixing The Festival?

    I have adored the Cheltenham Festival all my adult life. It's just wonderful. First attended in 1985. I was privileged to be at the parade ring in 2023 to see Constitution Hill and Honeysuckle come in. A golden hour. The Festival has been and always will be for me the highlight of the National Hunt season.


    In October 2022 the Jockey Club decided to keep it at four days. In my opinion the right choice. Even Kevin Blake says it will stick at four days. 'That ship has sailed' for those who hark back to the 'good old three day Festival.' The Jockey Club and Cheltenham Racecourse need four days of income. I have also seen social media comment and from R Forristal RP that we should return to six races a day. That's not going to happen either. As we know, it's dear enough for those of us who pay to get in without cutting 14% a day from the entertainment. Big survey done after the 2023 Festival showed that racegoers hated the idea of Festival six race cards even more than a five day Festival. So I'm going to assume it's 28 races over four days from Tuesday to Friday.


    It's an unpopular opinion but I believe that the Festival is by and large no better or worse than it was in the 1980s or 1990s. For me, it is just different. I was there so I'm happy that I'm entitled to my view.


    But there are issues with the Festival as it stands. There will always be issues. It evolves. This is my post 2024 Festival view of them and the opinions of others. I'm very fond of Kevin Blake and all that he does for NH racing in these islands. But I don't agree with all he says. As Chris Cook replied to me 'you have to be careful with something that has been so good for so long.' I would also worry about the comments made by Dr Richard Newland on Tuesday 19th March.


    Fine for you to disagree with me. Peace and goodwill to all.


  • In no particular order.


    FIRST ACTION - To improve the Festival the first action the Jockey Club should take is to increase all prize money to levels so that these races are hard to turn down for any owner or trainer. Therefore no handicaps should go unfilled, no one should consider the Betfair Hurdle, the Imperial Cup, Aintree, Fairyhouse or Punchestown a better financial incentive. That shouldn't be too difficult.


    THE PAST - 'THREE DAYS, IT WAS FAR BETTER' - I believe that we tend to look at past Festivals through rose-tinted spectacles. We remember what we want to remember and block out what we don't.


    Here's a few examples. As I say, I first went in 1985. Brand new suit and shoes, in awe of Prestbury Park. That bit hasn't changed. In 1984 Badsworth Boy had won his third QM. A five-runner field, prices 4/5 the winner (came home alone), 5/4 Bobsline (F three out) and whatever price you wanted for the rest. No Ryanair then, remember. If there had been social media (and Corals' James Knight in particular), there would have been uproar as to the weakness of the division. The penultimate Festival race was the Cathcart, a small field novicey conditions chase thing. Usually a short priced fav, no one bar Rory Delargy would have had a clue as to the entry criteria. At least one of the field had already run unsuccessfully in the previous two days. A pause before we all geared up for the County, the final race of the week. I watched See You Then and the magnificent Istabraq between them stroll six poor enough, uncompetitive Champion Hurdles. Can you imagine the uproar on social media in 2024 if Browne's Gazette's 1985 unfortunate start at 8/13 had happened last week? Katchit, Punjabi? Royal Gait, a nine year old novice, Alderbrook had raced once before over hurdles. Surely State Man with nine Grade 1s and a second to Constitution Hill is a better champion hurdler than those three?


    Let's return to 1979 and the ill-fated Golden Cygnet, one of the most visually impressive winners of the Supreme. Ever. Everyone looks back to the Cygnet. Immense potential. Well, they went 4/5 the winner, 8s Western Rose, 12s bar. 18 runners. He hacked it. 15 lengths. Western Rose was 2nd. His previous run was to be beaten in a 2m 4f Haydock h'cap hurdle. He was the Supreme second favourite to the Cygnet, remember. Third home was a 33/1 four yr old, Bootlaces. It seems that Bootlaces was only running because he was likely to have been balloted out of the Triumph. That's correct, balloted out of a 30-runner Triumph Hurdle. Must have been some rubbish behind him. With social media now, Golden Cygnet would have been fours on. The last three Supremes from 2022 to 2024 have been a helluva more competitive.


    More? Arkle beat one horse twice to win three Gold Cups. If he was racing now, they'd be calling for the Gold Cup to be turned into a handicap. Attivo in 1974 winning a 30 runner Triumph at odds on. Even worse than Inothewayurthinkin. One Man won an eight runner QM in 1998 when there was still no Ryanair Chase. Monsignor's rout of mainly social runners in the 2000 RSA Novice Hurdle. Unsinkable Boxer? Surely the Triumph has become a better and fairer race with the lesser quality heading for the Boodles? I'll stop now.


    SURE, LOOK AT THE NUMBER OF ODDS ON SHOTS... - They do go on about this. A favourite topic of Kevin, Chris Cook RP and Sir Antony and yes, they're right, recently there are more odds on favourites. But how many of them actually win? https://www.gaultstats.com/blog/fate-of-the-favourites-a-clerk-s-view?categoryId=83345 This link should take you to my Fate of The Favourites page where you can see if and how things have progressed up to 2023.


    My view on odds on Festival shots remains. Why are they that price? We have had 36 in the last seven Festivals yet only 19 have obliged. Half. Over the last decade or so I can sit at home and at the touch of a button watch every race of every horse in GB and Ireland. Skybet had the 2025, yes 2025, Grade 1 races odds up the week before Cheltenham 2024. Every year opinions tend to become more and more entrenched until they seem like fact. We have Upping The Ante, In The Know, Off The Fence, The Road To Cheltenham. Podcasts by the dozen. 'That's a certainty' heard everywhere. The 'Gordon Glint' when asked about Brighterdaysahead (5/6, beat). A horse sneezes or does a half decent piece of work and the Betfair Exchange reacts in a split second. This didn't happen in the 1980s or the 1990s. After a Leopardstown Beginners jog this season Marine Nationale was immediately odds on for the Arkle. In November 2022 Facile Vega was evens for the 2023 Supreme.


    Can also be shown in the QM where the small group of likely runners tend to be known from a long way out and sometimes don't appear that often. This century there have been 12 QM odds on favourites but only three odds on winners. At 1/4 and 4/11 twice. In a race where one serious mistake usually means curtains for any horse, favourite or not. This is no doubt that many favs deserve to be odds on but some maybe not? Hype? Easy enough for a hindsight view but for me, an odds-on shot doesn't necessarily make a Festival race uncompetitive. I would argue that neither Fact Or File in the Brown Advisory nor Galopin Des Champs in the GC won uncompetitive races. I personally got far more wow factor watching Ballyburn than Derek O'Connor steering a 13/8 good thing round a 23 runner Kim Muir handicap. It's not all about the punting.




    Johnny Dineen - 1. Take away the penalties from the Mares G2 Novice Hurdle. 2. Return the 'nearly four miler' to the conditions of yesteryear and the days of Rith Dubh and Mr JT McNamara. 3. Bring back the Novice Handicap Chase.


    I agree with these. Don't see the need for the penalties. Been shouting for the return of the old NH Chase for the past 18 months. The last three editions of the race have been a disappointment, even to a loyal fan like me. Initially, the change to a G2 wasn't a bad idea. The previous four versions had 12, 14, 18 and 16 runners respectively and Tiger Roll won a fine four-miler in 2017. It might be a blip but there are currently too many races of this type for the horse population. This race was never meant for a high class stayer like Corbetts Cross. As Johnny says, it was meant for the likes of Mr Vango.


    This return to the old conditions has been regularly espoused by Ruby Walsh on The Road To Cheltenham. He should know what he is talking about. It was his first Festival ride (ThatswhatIthought 20/1 2nd to Wandering Light 1998). He says that the slow old boats will go round at their own wonderful slow pace. Maybe a chance for GB Trainers? I can hear, 'But this is the Olympics!' No, the clue is in the name, it's the NH (National Hunt) Festival, not the NH G1 Festival. All are welcome.


    Big benefit of this would be those rated too high/won too often will have to run in the Brown Advisory, hopefully raising their numbers and then perhaps even force a trickle down to the Turners and Arkle.


    I also agree with Johnny's view to return the Novice H'cap Chase. But where to put it? I know the Mares Chase has matured into a fairly competitive G2 and I realise the importance of the mares programme. Would it not be better served by moving to the centrepiece on April Mares day? Might mean that mares running at the Festival could beef up the Ryanair (with an allowance) or one of the handicaps. If bringing back the Nov H'cap Chase, I would bring the ratings ceiling back to the original 140. Should prevent those like A Plus Tard getting in and making a mockery of it. He should have been running against Defi Du Seuil in the 2019 Turners. Another chance for GB Trainers?


    The novice handicap also would beef up the Friday card post Gold Cup. With due respect to the Hunters and the Martin Pipe, that definitely needs a lift. This race also needs the Festival. In 2022 it emerged as a five-runner affair at Consolation Kempton on the Saturday with a rating ceiling of 135. I have no idea where it is now. A bit like the lost and much lamented Raymond Smith Hunters Chase from Irish GC Day. Lamented by me, that is.


    DAVID JENNINGS - 1. Merge Club and Tatts, bring the two together. 2. Make the Turners into a handicap. 3. Make the Cross Country into a handicap.


    I would agree with 2. and 3. but make them limited handicaps. David's view that the X Country should not be a benefit for ex GC horses has merit although Tiger Roll did give it a 'story' and made me money. Making conditions races into handicaps sometimes looks well on paper but there is no guarantee that the top rated are going to turn up and you can be left disappointed. This season the Newbury Betfair Hurdle had a first prize of £87k. The top weight that ran was Spirit D'Anjou off 139.


    His one enclosure idea also has merit but I'm sure there are Health and Safety Crowding Issues as to why this won't happen. The tickets must be quite detailed in telling you where you can and cannot go. It is one enclosure on Trials Day, a day I thoroughly enjoyed. I like David a lot, he's a lovely lad, good to me and Gstats but it does make me laugh when Racing Journalists and Racing TV personalities start to talk about issues that affect us mere mortals. Cost, crowds etc. I assume they have to pay for very little.


    RICHARD FORRISTAL RP - 20th March produced his four day, six races a day card, plan. He is binning the Ryanair and the Albert Bartlett to 'immediately improve' the numbers running in GC, QM, Baring Bingham etc. Richard seems to have forgotten the customer deriding six race cards in the survey. Imho the Ryanair since 2006 and Albert Bartlett 2005 have become fine Festival Grade 1s, generously sponsored by firms that we actually recogise and know something about. But let's throw them out without a backward glance, says Richard. Both produced great races in the Festival just past although my pocket has yet to recover from The Jukebox Man. The Ryanair roll of honour has Albertas Run, Riverside Theatre, Frodon, Allaho, Vautour to name a few. Rory Delargy produced a long list of subsequent top graded winners that have run in the Albert Bartlett. Chianto Classico being one of the most recent.


    No matter what Richard claims, there is also absolutely no guarantee that binning either of these races will particularly strengthen the fields of the Baring Bingham, GC or QM. There is no way that Stellar Story or The Jukebox Man would have wanted to run in the shorter novice and the Skeltons made it quite clear that Protektorat was going nowhere near the GC. 'No point him going back to bang his head against that particular door.' Some racing journalists just want horses that have been stuffed before in the Open G1s to return and get stuffed again. So they can sagely opine 'I said at the time he/she wasn't good enough.' Imho the 2024 GC was a great race and didn't need any more plucky losers.


    I digress but from early in the season WPM made it clear that Lossiemouth was going nowhere near the Champion Hurdle unless both Constitution Hill and State man were not there. There was never a hint from him of a change of mind. If we hadn't had the G1 Mares Hurdle, I would argue that she would not have been there. I know she was odds on but not to see her run would have been hugely disappointing.


    KEVIN BLAKE on ATR/ITV - Lovely man, heart in the right place. He wants:-


    1. Turners into a Handicap 2. NH Chase conditions to be changed or race binned.

    3. Baring Bingham into a novice h'cap hurdle 4. Albert Bartlett down to 2m 6f.

    5. Mares Hurdle and Mares Chase into 0-150 handicaps. 6. X Country into a handicap 7. No novices in open handicaps.


    Ok Kevin, I think we've discussed 1. and 2. further up the page. Please don't bin the NH Chase. I consider it part of my childhood, 'one Boraceva, there's only one Boraceva.' I disagree with 3. The Sun Alliance/Ballymore/Gallaghers has been a fine level weights G1 since 1971 with some roll of honour. I know we've had five shorties in seven years but would Istabraq have been able to give 2st to Fred Hutsby and Mighty Moss? More importantly, would Aidan O'Brien have made him try? That's your question. I know it's the Festival but novice h'cap hurdles tend not to attract top novices.


    Similar for the Mares Hurdle. If a 0-150, WPM still not running the five yr old in the CH. Kevin will obviously know that as they age, mares go up in value, geldings not. To be treasured. Mares Ch into a h'cap? I would again worry that it would turn into that Mares H'cap Chase nonsense run at the December Meeting and populated by horses rated in the 110s. And, shock horror, WPM hasn't won either of the last two editions of the Mares Chase. I also see no need to bring the AB down in trip. You really have to stay to win that. See above. Cross Country to h'cap, yes. Stop novices running in handicaps, yes, see further down the page.



    RORY DELARGY - My historical friend is very keen to see the return of the seller which I believe ran until the 1960s. It would be fun to witness the auction. Would have to be done in the parade ring, of course.


    BRYAN GAULT - I know I hardly deserve to be in such exalted company but these are my proposed tweaks.


    HANDICAP HURDLES (PRESERVE OUR PERTEMPS) - Enough was said on this topic last year. David Jennings seems to have slighty re ignited his campaign to remove the race. We disagreed on it at the Donaghmore Preview Night. Pertemps have been for many years one of the finest sponsors of National Hunt racing, not just at the Festival. They should be lauded for it. The Cheltenham Festival seems to have more and more problems each year getting and retaining sponsors. What is Trustatrader? And at least the race is not called the Mrs Pertemps H'cap Hurdle.


    After the 2023 Good Time Jonny win I wasn't convinced on cutting the number qualifying from six to four from each qualifying race. It made last year's final of a far lower standard. Brandy McQueen got in off 121. This year Noble Birth last in off 129, hmm. I realise this is done because GB have few enough decent horses, but the Leopardstown Qualifier this season had only 11 runners. I was a guest of Mr Pertemps at the Festival in 2023 and after a few drinks ranted on at the poor man about having more Irish qualifiers. I made a play for Down Royal in November but was pleased to see the new Naas Qualifier a fortnight before the Festival.


    CHANGES TO COUNTY HURDLE and the CORAL CUP - Since Thumbs Up won the County in 1993, Saint Roi and State Man have been the only two winners who had not previously run in a handicap. And we know why. Both novices were good enough to contest or even win the Supreme. I'm just surprised that WPM has yet to do the same in the Coral Cup with some machine that should be in the Ballymore.


    The BHA stepped in to make it more difficult. From Oct 1st 2022 a novice shall only be qualified to run in a Class 1 or Class 2 Handicap Hurdle Race if it has run a minimum of four times in hurdle races in Great Britain, Ireland or France. Both those Willie good things had only three previous hurdle runs. The Boodles remains at three qualification runs. Kevin and Ruby suggest that this isn't enough and that novices should run in novice races. As stated, that would have stopped Absurde, Inothewayyurthinking, Better Days Ahead. More chances for GB Trainers?


    I would also suggest that not only should the Pertemps remain as it is, but that both the Coral Cup and the County should impose similar qualification conditions. Increase the prize money to Galway Hurdle standards. Make those races 'finals.' NH Racing in these islands has a plethora of Cl2 and above rated handicap hurdles from 2m to 2m 4f. I submit that it wouldn't be too difficult to produce qualification criteria for these two big Festival handicaps. Even less chance of that hidden light under the bushel. (see Langer Dan).


    CHANGES TO TIMES OF RACES - I'm surprised this is not debated more. One thing I strongly agree with David Jennings. The feature race each day should be no sooner than the fifth race. Build to the crescendo. Ground permitting, of course. Mares Hurdle before Champion Hurdle Tuesday. Cross Country before QM Wednesday, Mares Novice to Race 3 Thursday. Gold Cup Day could start with the Martin Pipe as the aperitif before moving on to the Grade 1s. I also believe that the Festival should finish with the Grand Annual or the County. It worked for me. Post Gold Cup timetable needs to be looked at. I am content with the 40-minute gaps between races. The Festival has up to 60,000 people attending each day. It's busy and hard to get about. Doesn't need to be any longer.




    PS. This still gets me and might be an Irish thing. But we tend to go horse racing to watch horse racing.


    I went to Cheltenham for the 2024 Trials Day, Lossiemouth, Paisley Park (aagh), Sir Gino et al. A great day out. 20000 people in attendance. Just nice, an easy crowd. Spent all day running between parade ring, then watch the race, then to parade ring to watch them back in, to bookies shop to watch Doncaster, then back to parade ring to watch them go out for the next. I had little time for anything else. Stood at the second spot to weep when Paisley Park returned. Return flight from Belfast, overnight accommodation, car rental, petrol and a £30 entance ticket all for just over £200. What value!


    I like a Guinness or three. I don't particularly like drinking poorly poured pints out of a plastic cup at £7.50, but I understand that beer at a racecourse is unlikely to be cheap. When attending the Festival, I make sure to eat a hearty breakfast. In March it is not that easy to get in, travel and board from N Ireland gets expensive and it costs a lot more for a ticket. When there, I will have a couple of beers before racing. If I think the child who has poured the pint may be on his/her first day working behind a bar, I might gently suggest that they have another go at filling the container to the top. I will not immediately take a photo of it to indignantly post on social media. I rarely seem to have the time or inclination to eat anything on course and I could not be bothered to try and sneak sandwiches in with me. What is that all about? Pinno tells me that expenses for every Festival bookmaking pitch is now approaching £1000 per day. I am sure that all those burger bars/coffee bars/pizza sellers also have to pay a pretty hefty premium to be on course. These vans are unlikely to be 'cordon bleu.' Good luck to them and to all those who spend their time posting pictures of a burger with which they are unhappy.


    Food and beverages are not my reason for attending. I will eat and drink well each evening. Last year I was fortunate enough to be around the parade ring for that ConstitutionHill/Honeysuckle hour. What a privilege. As Honeysuckle appeared to the roars, I happened to look up at my favourite expensive pizza van that sits above and between the two parade rings. I paused and thought, no Bryan, it's not your business how that queue spend their time. GO AND LOOK AT THE HORSES.  

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