The popularity of weekend racing at Royal Ascot shows Cheltenham could find a new and lasting audience
There is a sense of inevitability that the Cheltenham Festival will run from Wednesday to Saturday some time soon, if not in 2012 then probably the year after that. There are still plenty of issues to address, not least what will happen to the Midlands National, the biggest race of the season at Uttoxeter, but there is also a widespread acceptance that racing needs to make more of its major assets. On that basis, a Festival held entirely on weekdays looks like an event with an afternoon going to waste.
The potential for a Cheltenham Festival Saturday to open up the meeting to a new audience has already been demonstrated by the remarkable success of Ascot's fifth day at the Royal meeting.
The conservatives did not like it, because a four-day Royal meeting was the way it had always been done, but even the most reactionary elements could not object to a "one-off" Royal Saturday in 2002 to celebrate the Queen's Golden Jubilee. Then, when 57,000 people turned up, it was duly confirmed as a permanent fixture, and less than 10 years later, it has now overtaken Ladies' Day on Thursday as the best-attended day of the meeting.
It might seem unfair to compare a midsummer Flat festival with one over the jumps in March, but in many ways, Cheltenham has more in common with Royal Ascot than it does with an ordinary jumps card.
The point about both meetings is that people are willing to buy into the event itself, rather than any particular race. The Cheltenham or Ascot "brand" guarantees the quality of the sporting action, and the relative standard from one day to the next is a secondary consideration. After all, if the quality of the racing was the only thing that mattered, Ascot would have its best crowd of the week on Tuesday, and its worst on Saturday. In fact, it's often the other way around.
Not all of the 80,000 people who went to the Royal Saturday last June were first-timers, but at the same time, you cannot summon up that many fresh ticket sales in less than 10 years simply from the existing customer base.
So several thousand people, perhaps several tens of thousands, have decided to go to the Royal meeting since 2002 because, at last, it is relatively easy for them to do so. Some will never go again, some will return but only to Ascot, others may try a different day at the Royal meeting, or branch out to Goodwood or Newmarket or a course that is closer to home. And a few may even be so taken with the sport that one day they buy a horse of their own, with the dream of racing it at Ascot.
Such are the potential benefits of broadening racing's audience. It is not the initial £20 or so from the gate money that matters most, but the hundreds or thousands that could follow. The punters cramming into Ascot on Royal Saturday were willing to take that first step, they just needed a little encouragement.
Royal Ascot Hospitality
Corporate Hospitality Group