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25th April 2024 4:03 am

“A difference of opinion is what makes horse racing and missionaries."

Cheltenham – for what it’s worth

These Donors Are AMAZING Thank You

William S – MEJi – Peter N – Nigel B – Ken C – Mark S – James D – William M – Fiona M – Julian A – Jonathan H – Mrs V.M – Pete BN – Gavin C – Thom S – Sarah C – Mark S – Sam H – James R

SUMMARY

Having unjustly gained a negative reputation for being part of the Pandemic problem, perhaps impacting local and regional community support, Cheltenham has managed to lose racing fans through a combination of poor event planning, weak and/or arrogant customer relations, aggressive price marketing, and a race schedule, which has managed to engineer an uncompetitive and, at the highest level, uninteresting racing programme. This perfect storm of negativity has resulted in people losing interest, staying at home or, worse, for Cheltenham, holding Cheltenham parties both at home and abroad on cost grounds.

As a background to this, the appetite for racing in the UK is dwindling – especially for Jump racing.  In some demographic groups, it is perceived as cruel (witness the unmanaged Grand National protests – how many were prosecuted and convicted?). Amongst other groups, it is considered unnecessary and/or unimportant – if considered at all.  The probable outcome of this year’s negative press will quite possibly reinforce that latter perception. Simultaneously, the cachet of ownership has become weakened, and the perceived commercial benefits of corporate sponsorship have also been reduced. In 2019, a BHA conference declared that race sponsorship by non-bookmakers had been reduced by 50% between 2013 and 2018.

The consolidation of the bookmaking industry and the opening of the traditional bookmaking markets in the USA also suggest that it is unlikely that bookmakers will do anything overtly political in the UK regarding the Gambling Commission’s ongoing attack on the betting industry via Affordability Checks—for fear of getting adverse reports within the state authorities controlling their much bigger USA markets. This will also dramatically weaken the Levy, BHA, and future Festival funding. Prices can only continue to rise on that premise.

BACKGROUND

It’s probably fair to say that those who went to Cheltenham on Thursday or Friday had the best of it in terms of atmosphere and the consistency of competitive racing. However, since the Martin Pipe closer on Friday, there has been a constant flow of negative comments and criticism aimed at the BHA, Cheltenham, and The Jockey Club.

By Saturday, Jockey Club CEO Nevin Truesdale and BHA CEO Julie Harrington had both issued statements that tried to sound statesmanlike but, in the end, fundamentally failed to deliver either an industry or consumer-positive message. Truesdale sounded like an executive who saw no requirement for change on the grounds that this would blow over. Harrington still seems determined to portray the BHA as having some authority rather than its function of providing a smoke screen to the power of the bookmakers and racecourses.

Some of Cheltenham’s problems are directly a result of poor management, and some are caused by the constraints placed on them by outside authorities and commercial entities. Some result from failing to deal with poor public perceptions created by weak or ill-advised communications. The problem is exacerbated by a few ill-trained personnel who seem charmless, aggressive or bossy in almost every area.

WHAT WENT WRONG: CAR PARKING AND TRAFFIC

Please, let’s stop talking about the weather. It rains every seven years at Cheltenham, and historically, you need to put Event-Trak down to get people who don’t have 4WD or AWD off the grass at any event in the wet. Additionally, you can’t park an extremely heavy electric car on soggy grass because it has little torque and will sink. (Partially the reason incidentally why the pothole problem is now so significant). Also, you cannot tell the owner to turn on his hazards to tell the tractor driver where to come – because the battery drains, you now have a dead car stuck on hard-standing.

Car Parking planning and the officialdom supporting it has deteriorated yearly. This year, it was appalling. The Egress and Ingress to the Festival grounds have become much worse – not better – since the introduction of twenty-seven different coloured car-park labels and a bamboozling signage system overseen by people with little common sense. (On a single-track road into one car park, a five-minute queue formed whilst a car parking gauleiter argued the toss quite possibly about whether it is cream or jam on a scone first. I have no idea – because the car continued on the route he wasn’t supposed to, and the Gauleiter smiled. Maybe the hooded figure had been tipped for their jam-first advice. Who knows?

It took an hour to get to a spot, 20 yards from a gate we had passed 65 minutes and 40 tonnes of CO2 earlier – and all to ensure that a plan devised between Cheltenham Racecourse and the local Liberal Democrat Council – neither of whom has a degree in traffic management – was seen to tick a Community Engagement box. It made one weep with frustration, and some people had paid £30 for the privilege. Similarly, the egress required me to add miles to my journey and another hour again. I don’t want to get home at 8:00 pm when I live an hour away. These moments come at the beginning and end of a day and are the moments that colour judgment.

WHAT WENT WRONG: PRICING

We should remember that Cheltenham needs all the money it can get – because it is supposed to support almost entirely the other 13 (14 if you count Newmarket as two) Jockey Club Racecourses, of which I would guess only five break even. I have no idea because I cannot see any breakdown of the individual courses’ P & L. They still have outstanding Levy Board loans from the new stand, I would imagine

However, ticket prices are too high, and Cheltenham may need to rethink the enclosures. I might, for example, have a far smaller Club Enclosure, limited to the Clubs, restaurants and some hospitality tents. Then, have the Festival Enclosure—access all ground-floor areas.

Of course, I can remember when you could buy a pair of rose-tinted spectacles for sixpence, a pint of Guinness cost less than a ticket to Margate, and there was still Jam for Tea. Yes, we all miss that simpler time, and I accept it is past. However, I don’t believe this is the first financial crisis in Cheltenham’s illustrious history—so what did it do before?

Did it increase the prices and keep up the mantra that all was well on the SS Cleeve Hill? Was it packed and busy, and were tickets running out? Did it- in any measurable way – do anything to make visitors’ lives easier? I am not talking about corporate sales, which Nevin Truesdale and Ian Renton constantly refer to. Nor do I accept the entirely fatuous argument that JCR and BHA executives continually make that a day at Cheltenham compares very favourably with a premier league ticket. Only someone living on Mount Olympus could fail to have noticed that at Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, or Chelsea, there is a viable and regular public transport system, that the hotel prices aren’t trebled in a twenty-mile radius on home days, the beer remains the same in most pubs, and the food isn’t awful and expensive and takes 20 minutes to fetch. Perhaps someone could also explain why ticket sales for a cup tie between a Premier and a Non-League side are always lower. Might it have something to do with an absence of competition?

Has Cheltenham worked with the local hotels to manage prices to protect the golden goose for all? Did it set up a list of special offers in the town over the year? What mitigation measure did Cheltenham put in place that might conceivably be considered cost-beneficial to Joe Public? Additionally, Ian Renton claimed that he had told people not to come by car and that they would issue refunds if that were the case. Remember that we are instructed not to deal with ticket touts who would at least have taken the tickets at half-price, yet we have to because there is a Cheltenham policy for no refunds, It is never mentioned as a policy; instead, it tells punters to return the badge by post (another £2), and they will consider it. Does it offer cancellation insurance, such as with a rail ticket? No, Cheltenham does not.

These are all tiny things that Cheltenham only has a year to resolve before the perceptions I heard on Wednesday become tablets of stone. You think me harsh, perhaps? Here are some very public perceptions from the UK’s largest newspaper:

Earlier in the week, they ran out of food in the stable staff canteen – that is unacceptable. Something tells me they never ran out of grub in the hospitality village…. There is undoubtedly an ongoing issue around value for money and a lot of people feel like they are being royally ripped off…. Before you’ve coughed up 100 notes to get through the turnstiles and forked out a small fortune for a burger and chips, you might have paid £30 for parking – that didn’t even guarantee you were able to get the bloody thing out of the car park after racing… The parking and traffic chaos has been horrendous for years and it has already put a lot of folks off …. https://www.thesun.co.uk/sport/26732770/cheltenham-festival-punters-ripped-off/

These unaddressed year-on-year issues suggest that some Cheltenham executives believe their public is gullible and are happy to maintain the status quo. As Paul Hayward put it in TDN,

Like the Ryder Cup in golf, the Festival became drunk on the notion of infinite expansion and untouchable popularity.

WHAT WENT WRONG: RACING

To remind ourselves, these are some of the statistics: In four of the principal Novices races (The Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle, Gallagher Novices’ Hurdle and Champion Bumper), British runners failed to finish in the top five in four of them. (The Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle was won by Jeremy Scott, the Gary Moore-trained Salver finished third in the Triumph Hurdle and The Jukebox Man was 2nd in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle for Ben Pauling). Across those seven races, only three British-trained runners filled the first five places, less than 9%. To compare, British-trained runners fared better last season with six horses filling those spots – equivalent to 17 per cent – but that represents a significant drop from 2019 when a far more balanced 19 – making up 54 per cent – were involved for the Brits.

Today, the lack of depth at the top of the Grade 1 has been highlighted by the Racing Post’s Chief Handicapper, Jonny Pearson:

“Four of the 14 Grade 1 races at the meeting produced the lowest winning RPR in the last decade (taking into account 7lb mares’ allowances in all cases), with nine of the winning marks below that of the ten-year average. And it is not as if there was strength in depth in behind with the average marks of the top-four finishers little better, with three of the 14 Grade 1s producing the lowest average in the last decade and nine below the ten-year benchmark. The three races to hit a ten-year low by both metrics were the Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase and Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, while the Stayers’ Hurdle, Triumph Hurdle, Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle, Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase and Ryanair Chase were the others to fall short of recent standards by both metrics.”

“Connections duck and dive, even at Grade 1 level in the novice races, and this year’s festival drove home the fact the pool of top-class horses is so shallow that, in order to sustain the quality and competition of the best races, removing some of the options is surely a necessity.

I don’t know enough about changing the system long-term so that we don’t have a race with five Mullins horses competing against a couple of Brits looking for sixth-place prize money. I am, however, sure that the solution/s will take five years to come through.

Nor is this an attack on the genius of the Mullins team—from acquisition, through to bringing the young horses on, to race-planning and training, and through to the great Festivals; the man is a genius, is a great man-manager and has cracked it all. Nor am I especially interested in the Prestbury Cup per se; I only want to see the best horses competing, and we can tell when that happens because the market isn’t a string of odd-on favourites. Our problem, like the Ukrainian front line, is a lack of ammunition.

“It was an incredible week and I felt great pride at Willie making 100, but I do feel embarrassment at our success too. Cheltenham shouldn’t really be like this and the winners before felt different. Better. Maybe you shouldn’t say that. Maybe you can’t say that. But it’s the truth.” PATRICK MULLINS

So what could be improved?

Is there any merit in making the April meeting entirely for Mares and moving the Mares races there?

Should the Mares Hurdle be downgraded to a G2, which might force a future Lossiemouth to The Champion Hurdle?

Can we agree that the Cross-Country is better returned to a handicap than a conditions race masquerading as a former G1 winning chaser’s Testimonial? The first or second favourites have won for five years, all to the benefit of the Horse-Sitter.

I’d consider getting rid of The Turners. It’s neither one thing nor the other and offers trainers a chance to avoid the 2m or 3m Novice Chases. I’d also consider ending all the 20f races except handicaps.

There are no hurdles in the last mile of the Stayers and Triumph—does this paucity make it nonsense? What about running all the hurdle races on the current Old Course and all the chases on the current New Course?

Do we need two Amateur races? Perhaps move the National Hunt Chase to the Friday of The November Meeting.

Why are Novices permitted in Open handicaps? This latter point was raised very well in The Racing Post by Patrick Mullins:

“The small field here was strange. Cheltenham Festival novice fields should be double figures. Small-field races are easier to ride in, and therefore less likely to throw up surprises. Would Ballyburn have been as nice a ride in a 14-runner field? Too many novices are now going to handicaps. Make the valuable handicaps like the National six runs minimum – it’s blatant that handicappers can’t handicap horses off four and five runs. Fill up the novice races and let handicappers win handicaps. Look back at the Martin Pipe winners, for example, and see how many would have been competitive in the novice races: Galopin Des Champs, Don Poli, Sir Des Champs and Banbridge are Grade 1 horses, not handicappers.”

And how do we get a grip on the disparities between the UK and Irish handicapping systems? (Incidentally, the biggest cheer on Wednesday was when Dan Skelton was called to the Stewards after Langer Dan’s “surprise” victory – one assumes over concerns as to whether he had another nosebleed requiring a further lowering of the weights!)

One quoted solution to many of these ills is to chuck more money at the top-end of the Prize money food chain… but remember that Alex Ferguson and his partners are never going to get all their money back on their recent hugely expensive purchases from which, don’t forget, they can never breed. Their focus is The Gold Cup 2025 or 2026 and giving them £50k more or less makes no real odds. Julie Harrington talked of a further £3.8m into prize money – or what is, in reality, fewer than ten of the better horses in Andy and Gemma Brown’s recent Dispersal Sale last month.

Let’s invest instead in improved prize money for improved horses. Consider this: Why not introduce bonus schemes for improved handicap marks? If a horse improves 14 lbs in a season £x to the owner and £y to the trainer?

Perhaps part of the problem for Cheltenham is that—unlike exemplary independent racecourses such as Ludlow or Kelso—it suffers from “Groupthink” and the Big Brother constraints of large public bodies. Its very existence dictates that it can never be wrong, which can only lead to confusion between positivity and honesty. The biggest problem of all, however, is that NONE of these planning changes can occur without the agreement of The Raceourses – and they won’t give up a G1 Novice Hurdle without a real fight – and possibly a legal challenge.

Cheltenham, JCR, The RCA, The BHA, and racing fans should be very concerned. This week, The Racing Panjandrums went to No 10 on the subject of Affordability Checks, perhaps forgetting that the death of the Tories at the next general election would spell a significant sea change between urban interference and rural way of life at every level. Those changes WILL impact Cheltenham, and becoming a little bit more egalitarian with the customers now wouldn’t do any harm. The other vital changes – to the Jumps Pattern, the handicapping and the Festival Racecard need to be done before next season and quite possibly without filibustering consultation, and that won’t happen.

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