The 2024 Cheltenham Festival recently concluded after four days of eventful racing, which included Galopin Des Champs successfully defending his Gold Cup title and the legendary Irish horse racing trainer Willie Mullins recording his 100th Cheltenham winner as Jasmin De Vaux won the Champion Bumper ridden by Willie’s son Patrick.

Leading up to the event, there were concerns over a lack of elite horses in many of the festival’s prestigious races, as hot favorite Constitution Hill was ruled out of the Champion Hurdle after inflammation was shown in a blood test.

Marine Nationale, a strongly tipped horse that was going to participate in the Arkle Trophy, was also ruled out from competing due to injury. For many years, extending the Cheltenham Festival to five days has been discussed as potentially a key method of increasing the commercial footprint of one of horse racing’s biggest events.

This suggestion has been shot down by many fans of the sport recently, believing that an expansion of the schedule would be illogical, as the top-tier competition in races would be diluted and other race meetings across the UK and Ireland would suffer from poor attendances if close to or during the festival week.

Many of these racecourses struggle to attract large crowds, so competing against Cheltenham across five days could have huge financial implications.

The biggest media footprint of the Cheltenham Festival in the UK is its screening on ITV, thanks to British horse racing’s three-year extension with the broadcaster agreed in 2023. Live coverage of races are shown on ITV1 and ITV4.

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The deal covers all flagship UK horseracing events, including the Grand National, Royal Ascot, and the Epsom Derby. GlobalData estimates the agreement is worth $9 million annually.

ITV reported positive television viewing figures for this year’s Cheltenham Festival as ITVX streamed the event 3.6 million times, an increase of 13% compared to the 2023 edition. This highlights that despite the withdrawal of several big-name horses such as Constitution Hill, known as racing’s version of Lionel Messi, the event still captured the attention of millions of the British public.

The festival’s premier race, the Gold Cup, generated a peak viewership of 1.59 million viewers, compared to the 1.68 million who tuned in last year.

Sponsorship is a vital part of the Cheltenham Festival’s commercial model. GlobalData reports that 21 brands supported this year’s event, with the race expecting to generate in the region of $3.6 million from these partnerships.

The title sponsor of the prestigious Gold Cup was the jeweller Boodles which has a two-year renewal agreement worth $630,000 annually. As horse racing is undoubtedly associated with gambling, the Jockey Club has been very active in securing sponsorship agreements with various gambling firms.

This year’s Festival is estimated by GlobalData to have secured roughly $820,000 in total from Paddy Power, Coral, and Sky Bet, all well-known gambling firms operating in the UK. Future expansion of the Cheltenham Festival calendar could provide the Jockey Club with greater leverage when negotiating sponsorship agreements, anticipating a wider audience.

However, a warning sign against a five-day festival is the drop in attendance at the event, which is said to be due to the cost-of-living crisis in the UK and Ireland.

Racegoers looking to stay for the duration of the event would have to fork out an average of £3,000 for a four-night stay in Cheltenham. The lowest-priced hotel room on the eve of the event was £399 for one night. For the first three days of the event, which included the rebranded “Style Wednesday” (formerly Ladies Day), attendance was down by 7% compared to 2023.

Tickets for the event began at $46.79, but despite this fair pricing, many spaces were remaining in the cheaper viewing areas, such as the Tattersalls and Best Mate enclosures, on the Wednesday and Thursday.

A pint of Guinness in the racecourse’s Guinness Village was expensively priced at $9.48. Many people are not in a financial position to attend the event, due to the high cost of attending a single day. An extra day to the festival currently seems unnecessary as recent ticket sales indicate no demand for it.

Historically, the festival has offered racing fans the chance to witness a top-class field of horses battling to win some of the sport’s greatest honors. However, in recent years, especially in 2024, the limited talent pool and reductions in the number of permitted runners have made many races less competitive.

The dominance of some of the sport’s major trainers such as Mullins, backed by rich owners, has also negatively impacted the event’s appeal to potential racegoers, further suggesting that another day added to the schedule is unlikely to increase average day attendance.

If the racing program was expanded, fans would likely be disappointed by small uncompetitive fields with the same trainers winning every race, and the festival would struggle to draw in less committed members of the public weighing up an expensive day at the races.

With more races across the week and a lack of competition, more odds-on favorites would dominate, which would also be unappealing to racing fans. 

Those who argue for a five-day Cheltenham Festival believe an extended schedule would expand the commercial potential of the event by bringing in extra income to the racecourse and the local economy, through increased ticket and hospitality sales and extra hotel room bookings.

After the financial hit the Jockey Club took from Covid-19, it was highly anticipated that a five-day festival could be implemented with the backing of stakeholders.

However, plans were quashed in October 2022 after the Jockey Club carried out a thorough consultation exercise, which included assessing the financial benefits and the turf management of the course which is critical to horse welfare. Since then, momentum for a fifth race day has stalled.

There will be key stakeholders within the Jockey Club who still desire to see the event expanded, hoping to drive further income from one of the most celebrated horse racing events in the world.

However, with a lack of real support from jockeys, trainers, racing commentators, and racegoers, Cheltenham will remain a four-day event in the short term. The Jockey Club must ensure that races at the festival become more competitive again to create the best possible spectacle for fans.