One lucky punter will win £1m this Saturday
One of the upsides of this current lockdown is a far higher following for racing, with TV audiences well in excess of the norm, in the absence of more active things to do on a Saturday. ITV Racing has capitalized on this by extending its coverage to include more days, and more tracks than the usual, as Saturday's visit to Taunton illustrated. What chance we could persuade them to visit a Pointing fixture?
But it is Cheltenham season, where every race is by default some sort of prep for the 28 events of the Festival in little more than 6 weeks time. This is a very peculiar year for the Festival after the coronavirus-induced disruption of sport and a season where little more than 4,000 spectators have attended Cheltenham fixtures that would normally have hosted nearly 150,000.
One welcome return to Cheltenham after an absence forced by the BHA's Approved Betting Partner exclusion is Irish bookie Paddy Power, whose sponsorship now extends not just to the eponymous November Gold Cup that they made their own after the exit of Thomas Pink, but New Year's Day and two races at the Festival.
Everyone will be looking to make a mark here and have a piece of history, including fans, jockeys, trainers, pundits, and sponsor Paddy Power. Cheltenham hopefuls have a mixed record at Saturday's fixture; the Cleeve has been a solid indicator of Stayers Hurdle chances, but the Cotswold Chase has a poor record of delivering a Gold Cup winner. It's often better to look among the supporting card for winners in March. Paisley Park will be aiming for a smooth prep in the Cleeve as a preamble to the Stayers in March.
For fans, the hope that the vaccine roll-out would allow an outsider's chance of attending a day at Cheltenham in March is receding with every day's grim Covid death toll. And if truth be told, we suspect that the BHA and DCMS are playing a very cautious innings around Cheltenham following the brickbats that were thrown at the racecourse in March a year ago. Nevertheless, punters will be paying attention to performances and raiding cheltenhamguides.com to get the latest updates, news, odds, and much more, that could potentially be game-changers for their ante-post betting slips. As for Paddy Power, well, they just want to give £1,000,000 to a lucky racing fan.
Yes, you read right, £1,000,000!
According to Paddy Power, the plan was to have a lucky fan win the pot during after the Grade III 3 Paddy Power Millionaire Handicap Chase on New Year’s day, but when Cheltenham fell to waterlogging, the race was deferred to Festivals Trial Day. This is the latest is a long history of innovative and often edgy marketing undertaken by the Irish bookmaker, that hasn't disappeared in their corporate merger with Betfair. This is a firm who employed a Head of Mischief, after all, and I have good cause to remember some of their japes from my time at Cheltenham.
Remember the Hollywood look-alike sign on the hillside opposite the Ellenborough Park Hotel? Or the Paddy Power pants hot air balloon of 7 years ago? Most of that Tuesday afternoon of the Festival, I spent chasing Paddy Power personnel around the enclosures, and on the phone to lawyers seeking an injunction! And locked away somewhere in a storage room is the Paddy Power Gold Cup mascot, the sort of thing you see at footie matches, that graced the scene in November for many a year. Volunteers to wear it, anyone?
So Powers are well used to making noise in an effort to gain market share. But in addition to one racing fan becoming a millionaire for just predicting the winner, Paddy Power will be very involved in making sure fans and jockeys alike do not go home empty-handed. And that's admirable; at the heart of all the publicity guff, there's a firm that actually appreciates the riders, trainers and owners that make up our wonderful sport. You can be sure that they won't be hiding their light under a bushel come Saturday. This has to rank among their less edgy marketing ploys, not like the earlier example beneath.
For fans and punters, this will be the perfect chance to ramp up the adrenalin and excitement around Cheltenham, even if they can't be there. Like a princely feast, Saturday's Festival Trials is the appetiser before the mains in March.