I must admit I was flagging a bit by Thursday at the Festival and at first I thought I just misheard it when the Ryanair was announced on the tannoy as the day’s Feature Race. However, when my racing companion Spread Sheet Martin, who has a far better sense for detail than me, also picked up on it I knew my ears weren’t deceiving me. Perhaps he’d just misread the notes. There was nothing in the Card to suggest the race’s elevation in status and certainly no advertising in the lead up to the Festival pointing to the Chase replacing the Stayers’ Hurdle as the day’s highlight. But then came all the trimmings associated with the main event- The horse’s being lead out by mounted men in hunting red, the dramatic music and that razzmatazzy stuff they put on the screens.
I found it all very confusing. I had rather assumed there was some sacred law written on a scroll stating that the 3.30 on each day of the Festival was to be the Feature Race and that any change could only be achieved by armed struggle.
I feared I knew the answer, but before jumping to any conclusions I made some enquiries: I tweeted Cheltenham Racecourse, the Jockey Club and the Racing Post, but none replied. I expect they were busy.
I would have to do my own research and it didn’t take long. A quick google of Ryanair Cheltenham Sponsorship and the answers were there on the Ryanair website. We are informatively told that Ryanair is Europe’s favourite airline – There was me thinking it was best known for cancelled flights and poorly paid pilots- and that it has extended its sponsorship of the two and half mile chase for five years. It proudly states it will increase the prize fund from £300,000 in 2017, to £350,000 this year and rising to £400,000 by 2022. And then the inexorable conclusion “In the light of this significant boost in prize money, The Ryanair Chase will now become the feature race on St. Patrick’s Thursday at the Cheltenham Festival from March 2018 onwards”.
The lack of any publicity by the racing authorities of this change prior to the Festival, might hint at a degree of embarrassment on their part and I do wonder if Ryanair owner, Micheal O’Leary, was engaged in a back room power struggle with Cheltenham to have his race moved to the 3.30pm slot as well.
It turned out to be a good day for Mr O’Leary. Not only was the feature race run in the name of his company, but for the first time since he has sponsored it, one of his horses from the Gigginstown Stud won. The joy must have been enough to take his mind off the impending strike by Ryanair employees.
Perhaps in the final analysis, other than highlighting the power of money and influence of O’Leary in National Hunt racing, this doesn’t matter a great deal. However, whilst enough cash may buy you the main event and the winner, it can’t guarantee a great race. The Ryanair only attracted six runners, whilst fifteen started in the Stayers’ Hurdle and treated us to a far more thrilling finish.