Like a lot of racing fans, I was in total amazement when I heard the news that all Irish racing was going to make the switch from ATR to Racing UK next year.
Television sports rights are big business nowadays, take for example the Premiership in football which are quite simply far too big and because of it nobody has seen a live game on terrestrial television since Leeds United won the last old Division One title.
If I had my way I would make it compulsory that one package of games must be sold to a terrestrial broadcaster that way those who can’t afford the ridiculous subscription costs can still see top level football.
Rugby League and Union are both behind paywalls too as regarding their respective main leagues albeit with Channel 5 who have the highlights show are showing five games in a simulcast with BT this season.
Cricket also turned its back on mainstream television, formerly with the BBC until 1998 when Channel Four won the rights, they revolutionised the way the game was showcased until 2005 when full live coverage went exclusively to Sky with highlights on 5.
For many this was beyond the pale,more so as England had just won The Ashes off the old enemy and the sport had probably never been as popular with the public, What a way to reward the loyal and the converted eh!
“As for horse racing well that has had a real journey and a half regarding its coverage on the box”.
From my days growing up it was simple especially at weekends, Grandstand came on at dinner time and from 1pm till about 2.45 or so you would get three or four races depending if it was a single meeting or five should it be a double header then from 3pm Channel Four came on with their coverage from one or two meetings until 5pm, this eventually became 2-4pm as the progressed.
Aside from live coverage of the major festivals and in the old days of Bank Holiday Monday’s if you wanted to see any other live racing then the only place was the betting shop and SIS.
In 1995 through the whole picture changed with The Racing Channel and for the first time live domestic horse racing from the UK was beamed into people’s homes albeit through subscription only of £19.95.
From 11am until 4pm to begin a host and a pundit which to begin with was Richard Pitman and Declan Murphy took you through some of the races but not all due to the times, eventually reporters and more hosts, pundits and voice overs got took on as the length of the show eventually made sure all the days racing got shown including the evening meetings.
Irish racing only tended to be shown if British racing was abandoned or if it was one of the major meetings with the high-quality races and even then, the coverage itself sometimes came from RTE if it was on telly in Ireland.
Now this was fine and ticking along nicely, one main rule was that The Racing Channel couldn’t show any races from a live terrestrial meeting apart from the shoulder races, initially for myself when growing up it was great, I remember my teenage years and subscribing to the Saturday only service after I finally got a job and on one St Leger Day tuning into the two jump meetings that day from Bangor and Sedgefield (oh how I missed those) and actually backing a few winners too which helped.
Other highlights included watching Newton Abbott on the Saturday of Glorious Goodwood when the jumps season didn’t have summer jumping and you could get some much needed respite, added to that in the harsh winters which claimed many a top meeting over the sticks you could still get the racing fix from the all-weather which at the time certainly helped fix a gap and stop one from going stir crazy and climbing up the wall at the prospect of a quiet Saturday!
In 2001 though things changed, the first Attheraces was born which took 49 courses to a new channel and a new team of hosts, pundits and experts who have now become household names amongst regular fans of daily televised racing.
This eventually led to the closing of The Racing Channel in January 2003 and Attheraces had the whole ship to themselves but this didn’t quite go to plan as a few months later they also closed due to revenue problems and thus leaving no live coverage apart from USA racing which was shown on the channel to help keep the coverage going albeit from a studio in America.
Horse racing suddenly went from having it all to having nothing at all, a bit like the spoilt brat from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory who always wanted it “now”.
Soon enough a new channel called Racing UK was launched the following year who cater for what could be referred to the more higher quality end of racing with occasional racing from France should it be a quiet day at RUK Towers and during the winter months an evening meeting from Kempton, hopefully for many more years to come.
After this we eventually got the new ATR and they carry mainly races under the ARC banner and a few independents although of late a few courses have jumped over to RUK.
On Saturday just gone as I’m sure you know I was at Wetherby for the Towton and before the fifth race on the card I was stood in the main stand waiting for the race to being but this particular afternoon had three jump meetings all on RUK with Sandown and Musselburgh being the other two.
The 3.20 race at Wetherby went of quote late due to the 3.15 at Musselburgh being the 4m1f Edinburgh National, now the television channels of racing don’t like split screen and I’m in agreement over this, I want to concentrate on one race at a time and not be darting about all over the place but here we have a main problem.
Now that RUK has racing from Ireland next year one has to wonder if the jumps season in particular will have seismic changes to its fixture list.
As I alluded to just now we had three jump meetings on RUK but next year should the fixture list be the same then the Dublin Racing Festival will have to be accommodated too and quite rightly so as the racing was simply divine to watch but this will also lead to longer gaps for racegoers at the other tracks which isn’t a bad thing as it gives more time to sort out bets and comfort breaks but on the flip side it might be a longer day for many who may not like it.
Regarding the decision to move channels, I am saddened as it means the meetings are going behind a paywall, I’ll admit I don’t have either channels due to the financial costs but the free replays on the ATR app is something I’ve used many times and will do so for this year too.
Hopefully ATR can persuade a few tracks to jump over and help fill the gaps but who really knows what will happen.
As I said at the start, television sports rights are big business, F1 is about to have its final year jointly on C4 as Bernie Eccleston awarded Sky full live rights before he left his role as boss, weather highlights will remain on terrestrial television is another thing but we can only wait and see.
Fans of horse racing should never take for granted that we have just short of 100 days live on ITV and ITV 4 because if this went fully behind a paywall then the only two races we would see would be the Grand National and Derby due to the Crown Jewels rule.
These are interesting times for sport and with the second year of ITV being well underway we should make sure that this four-year tenure will not be the last one, As the old saying goes “You don’t know what you got till it’s gone!”
Article By Neil Watson