Changes and challenges facing Cheltenham and Jumps racing

FIT FOR THE FESTIVAL -- an artist's impression of how the new �45 million grandstand and elevated walkway will look at the Cheltenham Festival next March.
FIT FOR THE FESTIVAL -- an artist's impression of how the new �45 million grandstand and elevated walkway will look at the Cheltenham Festival next March.

It was probably just a coincidence that, as I wandered over to the Best Mate statue at Cheltenham last Friday, striding towards me was the great horse’s trainer herself, Henrietta Knight.

Or maybe it was a symbolic signal, nudging me towards switching my punting attentions from the Flat to the Jumps.

The indomitable Hen has just released a new book, ‘Not Enough Time’ which, I am reliably informed, will be one of the better reads in your Christmas stocking. And its title sums up the predicament facing many punters in and around October as the start of the new Jumps season collides head-on with the finish of the Flat.

Gone are the days when there was no need to worry about the winter game until the Open meeting and the Paddy Power Gold Cup at Cheltenham in November. Its serious action gets under way much earlier than that now, with a smattering of important meetings vying for our attention alongside big events on the level not only in this country but also across the globe.

Those meetings include, of course, Cheltenham’s Showcase which underlined last weekend how it has grown in stature in recent years. It also presented the opportunity to check out the track’s new £45 million grandstand, which is a spectacular replacement for the antiquated boxes and temporary buildings that blighted the paddock end of the course.

I must admit that I was blown away by the fresh and vibrant facility, in particular the elevated walkway that now links all the key areas of the course. I would be amazed if it did not ease congestion considerably on Cheltenham’s busiest days, especially Gold Cup Day, which can deteriorate into an uncomfortable scrum unless you have a tried and tested vantage-point game-plan.

The new development was, of course, much needed and instantly transforms Prestbury Park into a venue fit for purpose again as far as the Cheltenham Festival is concerned. It should also pave the way for an expansion of the Festival from four days to five days, which is becoming as inevitable Richard Johnson landing his first jockeys’ championship.

It is a welcome inevitability too, increasing revenue for and raising the profile of the sport. Given that a five-day Festival would include for the first time a Saturday, which is the most popular and accessible day in terms of spectating and betting, it would also enable more people to get a taste of an event that has ballooned into a modern-day sporting phenomenon.

Critics will no doubt moan of the danger that an expansion could dilute the quality of the product. But similar fears were quashed when the Festival went from three days to four, which actually enhanced the meeting.

The move, announced by Cheltenham last week, to increase the time between Festival races to 40 minutes is a clear indication that a reduction to six races per day is in the offing, which would create the perfect excuse for a fifth day. That would add up to 30 races, meaning only two extra ones would need to be found on top of the current schedule.

A 2m4f championship hurdle race has long been overdue, not to rival the long-established Grade One Aintree Hurdle, but rather to supplement it. But my personal preference to fill the two vacancies would be to switch to the Festival the EBF Novice Handicap Hurdle Final and Mares’ Bumper, currently staged on the Saturday beforehand at Sandown. I haven’t looked into the logistics of such a switch, or even consulted the Esher track (!) whose Imperial Cup Day card would need to be bolstered as compensation, but both are always tasty races that would not be out of place on a Festival menu.

Opposition to a five-day festival will soon be pouring in from the backward-thinking Let’s-Run-The-Derby-On-A-Wednesday Brigade. But there is no logic behind failing to make the most of one of the sport’s greatest assets.

Just a cursory glance back to the largely languid 2014/15 Jumps season emphasises how the Festival, alongside Aintree’s Grand National bonanza and one or two other major days at Newbury, Ascot, Sandown and Haydock, is propping up the whole shooting match. Too much of the rest of the National Hunt scene is being held to ransom by the scourges of small, uncompetitive fields, paltry prize-money, ludicrously restrictive 24-hour declarations, low sun and unedifying midwinter slogs on horribly heavy ground.

To its credit, the BHA is aware of the problems and attempting to find fixes. Hence last week’s sensible formation of a protocol aimed at eliminating the farce surrounding the omission of obstacles because of low sun. However, much more needs to be done to re-invigorate our wonderful winter sport, so embracing commonsense change and accepting measured progress cannot be resisted.

Once the Breeders’ Cup is over this weekend, nearly all punters will be making their own change -- that of mindset from one code to the other. As Flat racing hands over the baton, Jumps racing must ensure it doesn’t drop it.