The extraordinary pull of jump racing in Britain and Ireland
It’s a branch of the sport with very little profile in the rest of the world, but jump racing – also known as National Hunt and, rather quaintly, as steeplechasing in the United States – is hugely popular in Britain and Ireland. Over the next five days, ahead of its biggest meeting next week, we will examine the phenomenon in an effort to find out what the rest of the world is missing out on. Chris Smith reports.
It’s pretty quiet in racing at the moment, right? Things are building up in Dubai, and some Kentucky Derby hopefuls are beginning to flex their muscles stateside, but right now, in the first half of March, there’s nothing much to get properly excited about anywhere. Right?
In Britain and Ireland, next week is THE week – the biggest, most eagerly anticipated, most watched, most popular, most cherished week of the entire racing calendar. Bar none. Forget the Derby, Royal Ascot, the Irish Derby, Glorious Goodwood, the Arc, Champions Day, everything. In fact, you could run all those events next week at the same time, and throw in the return of Frankel, a guest appearance by Deep Impact, and second comings from Secretariat and Phar Lap, and you’d barely distract the great bulk of these two nations’ racing publics for more than a few moments.
Because next week is the Cheltenham Festival.
Such is the grip that this hallowed collection of 27 jump races (technically 26 as one of them is a flat race for potential jumpers) has on the public – or at least any section of it with any awareness of horseracing whatsoever – that, as soon as the last race has been run, most of them will start planning for next year’s renewal without much of a thought for anything else in between.
Cheltenham fever has been gripping both countries for the past month or so. The national newspapers that have been doing their best for years to minimise the amount of editorial space the sport is allotted, particularly in Britain, make a massive exception for this meeting. Background pieces on the leading contenders have been appearing with increasing regularity as the countdown gathers pace. Next week, there will be pullout sections every day of the meeting, with most of the major fixed-odds bookmakers offering free bets at the year’s standout opportunity to attract fresh account holders.
Up and down both lands, race fans have been gorging themselves for weeks on a daily diet of Festival Preview Nights in pubs, clubs, racecourses, conference centres, hotels, anywhere organisers can book a room. These are nice little earners for the high-profile trainers, celebrity pundits, and many others slightly lower down the food chain who join expert panels to regale the assembled with words of wisdom and prediction about the coming contests.
There are black tie corporate preview nights in swanky hotels at £80 ($134) a head and preview nights with entry at a tenner each that includes a free pint of beer in the back room of the local working men’s club. Find a venue, book a couple of “experts” and suddenly a queue is forming and you’ve got yourself a healthy profit. Only for Cheltenham though.
The national TV station Channel 4, the only non-dedicated channel that does racing at all these days, goes into overdrive next week, with morning preview programmes, wall-to-wall afternoon coverage of the races themselves and the bits in between, and late-night highlight shows. Of the two dedicated channels, Racing UK will be doing Cheltenham and little else 24 hours a day, and At The Races will also be presenting daily coverage from the Festival, even though they can’t actually show any of the races and still have alternative meetings of their own to broadcast.
Perhaps the ultimate barometer of the Festival’s appeal can be found in circulation figures of the British racing daily the Racing Post, whose very business well-being hinges unreservedly on the satisfactory execution of these four days of sport at Prestbury Park on the outskirts of the quaint, cultural town of Cheltenham Spa (population 115,000) on the edge of the tourist magnet that is the Cotswold Hills in the middle of England.
The Post’s circulation depends entirely on the strength of the racing on any given day. A good Saturday with decent quality racing on Channel 4 will produce a sale roughly double the number of copies (around 40,000) sold on a normal midweek day with nothing on Channel 4. Next week, the sale will be comfortably more than three times that of a normal day, and advertising will be through the roof with the aforementioned fixed-odds bookmakers happy to pay premium prices and then some for whatever space they can shoehorn their artwork into.
So dependent were profit and loss lines on Festival Week that, when the meeting was cancelled in 2001 because of an outbreak of foot and mouth disease – an unthinkable calamity over which strong men and women will continue to shudder for generations, the bookmakers, suddenly conscious of their vulnerability, rethought their entire methodology and accelerated posthaste the shift of emphasis from betting on racing to betting on other activities, particularly football, and gaming machines.
Such was the effect of the Cheltenham Festival then, and it is just as popular today. If you could distil what Cheltenham has and bottle it, most, if not all, the sport’s problems worldwide would vanish on a swelling tide of public enthusiasm. But what is it exactly that Cheltenham has? And how has it happened?
This, remember, is jump racing. It may be the Olympic Games of jump racing, but it’s still a branch of the sport that is banned in parts of Australia, can muster only a small, but dedicated following at a handful of tracks in the U.S., and is considered at best a curiosity, and at worst inhumane and abhorrent, in many other places where horse racing takes place.