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|Paying Channel 4 has left TV racing utterly devalued
| Greg Wood
It is not often that you are asked to sign a petition in your local
betting shop indeed, a desire to escape from the troubles of the outside
world is often a prime motivation for opening the door in the first place. At
present, though, several betting chains are collecting signatures as part of a
Racing Post campaign against the BBC's decision to slash its racing coverage by
half to just 14 days in 2010.
Corporation's move, finally confirmed late last week, had been widely trailed
for many months. A petition against the decision now appears as pointless as
the entire campaign, given that it was probably a done deal as long as six
What all the breast-beating seems to demonstrate as much as
anything, though, is racing's enduring ability to turn a setback into in
its perception, at least a full-scale disaster. Attempts to cast the BBC
as the baddie, meanwhile, suggest collective amnesia when it comes to the
recent history of racing on terrestrial TV.
When, in June 2005, the sport effectively agreed
to pay Channel 4 to televise racing, everyone was delighted. John McCririck,
normally a man who is viscerally opposed to subsidies, threw a garden party to
celebrate. And why not? The style of Channel 4's coverage may be locked in the
1970s, but it offers a reliable weekly fix for punters with no access to
But there was always going to be a price to pay once the
accepted way of doing things had been turned on its head. The agreement made to
stump up the cash for coverage of racing on Channel 4 instantly devalued
everything else. Events with the prestige of the Derby, Royal Ascot and the
Grand National could take the hit, and were still worth paying for. The rest,
by and large, were not.
On that basis, and when set against the fears
of four years ago that the sport might all but vanish from terrestrial TV, the
prospect of 85 or so days on Channel 4 and most of the really outstanding stuff
on the BBC looks like as fair a deal as anyone could realistically hope for.
So why is it greeted like a calamity? Every sport bar football would
sell its soul for the kind of coverage that racing receives, both on
terrestrial and digital platforms. Sometimes you wonder whether the racing
nation has an inbred, collective need to feel miserable and threatened.
It is one explanation, perhaps, for how it was that a 2½-minute
report on the BBC last week ever managed to reach the airwaves. Fronted by
Mihir Bose, the Corporation's sports editor, it was such a one-eyed,
agenda-driven piece of journalism that its natural home was Fox News. Instead,
it was on the main evening bulletin. Racing, according to Bose, is "a sport
that knows it's in turmoil". The reason? "The traditional racing public is
ageing and in particular, the unfocused Flat season lacks a narrative to
attract new punters." This supposition was presented as fact.
was the talk of "lack of narrative" that really gave the game away, given that
is a pet phrase of senior executives at the British Horseracing Authority and
elsewhere. In these circles, there is still enthusiasm for the much-maligned
Sovereign Series, a plan to link top races as a package for sale to the highest
The idea is a non-starter for any number of reasons, but in any
case it overlooks the fact that there is a story to the season already, as
three-year-olds emerge for Classic trials, compete in the Guineas and Derby,
and then go on to take on older horses and contest the end-of-season
championships. Alongside those championship events, the two-year-olds are also
sorting themselves, ready to begin the whole story again.
thread that leads from one chapter to the next is betting. Trial winners get
quotes for the Classics, Guineas winners get quotes for the Derby, Derby
winners for the King George, Arc and Breeders' Cup.
Yet still the
fundamental link between racing and betting is one that the current BHA
hierarchy is reluctant to even acknowledge, never mind exploit. Now that really
is a problem worth discussing.