Officials ‘not worried’ despite alarming drop in Cheltenham crowd numbers, which are attributed to the cost of living crisis.
According to Racecourse Association chief executive David Armstrong, it is too early to draw firm conclusions from the dramatic drop in attendance over the first three days of the Cheltenham Festival. However, he does believe that the ongoing strain of the cost of living crisis and disruptions to transportation have both contributed to the decline.
In order to reduce congestion and enhance the customer experience, Jockey Club Racecourses decided to limit the meeting’s capacity to 68,500 participants per day. However, attendance numbers on Tuesday and Wednesday were significantly lower than that, and Thursday’s 62,429 participants – the largest gate of the week prior to Friday’s sold-out Boodles Gold Cup card – marked a 15% decrease from last year and was more than 6,000 below capacity.
Energumene’s back-to-back victories in the Champion Chase were witnessed by only 50,387 people, a 21% decrease from his first victory in the race a year ago. Wednesday was the quietest day in a number of years.
Tuesday: 60,284 (68,567)
Wednesday: 50,387 (64,431)
Thursday: 62,429 (73,754)
“I think the industrial action has had an effect through the week and it’s hard to quantify the difference that makes,” said Armstrong. “Certainly making it that bit harder to get here doesn’t help. It’s a little bit early to tell overall. There’s a lot of noise in the numbers because of the strike action. Thursday was quite a good crowd and today [Friday] is sold out.”
Armstrong added: “It will be interesting to unpick that and understand which people were here, how the different types of crowd differ and where they’re coming from between this year and last. That will be part of the work the Jockey Club do after the event.”
In the year 2022, the year before the Covid pandemic, attendance at racetracks decreased by 14% compared to 2019, but Cheltenham’s numbers remained strong.
High level deals during the current year’s gathering were accounted for to be solid, with the sold-out finishes paperwork for the marginally decreased limit on Gold Cup day going up toward the finish of January interestingly.
Armstrong said of the figures for the first three days at Cheltenham: “I’m not particularly worried about it. I think Aintree is selling well but we’re going to continue to see the effects of the cost of living crisis. This time last year we’d only just had the invasion of Ukraine and it hadn’t yet come through and started to affect people in their pocket. Now you’ve got the full effect of cost of living crisis, fuel costs, all the things we know all about that are affecting disposable income.”
Narrative reports are that the Rider Club’s expressed point of making the experience more agreeable for racegoers has been supported by the fall in numbers, particularly in the vitally open regions.
What you see is that the numbers in the lower cost enclosures are the ones that are under threat, whereas hospitality is absolutely packed out, with every space gone,” he said: “What you’re probably seeing is those people with pressure on their disposable income are just finding it that little bit harder. People might now only go one or two days, they will change their patterns of behaviour if they’re under personal financial pressure.
“We’ve had some encouraging signs earlier on in the year with other meetings that have gone well. It is right that Cheltenham is a bellwether to some extent as to what we might see later on.”