Tuesday 26 September 2017

Armchair Irish fans left behind with no HD on horizon until 2019

SUNBURY, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 26: Tom Scudamore riding Thistlecrack (R, orange) celebrates after winning The 32Red King George VI Steeple Chase from Cue Card and Paddy Brennan at Kempton Park on December 26, 2016 in Sunbury, England. (Photo by Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images)
SUNBURY, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 26: Tom Scudamore riding Thistlecrack (R, orange) celebrates after winning The 32Red King George VI Steeple Chase from Cue Card and Paddy Brennan at Kempton Park on December 26, 2016 in Sunbury, England. (Photo by Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images)

Johnny Ward

My Brooklyn-born cousin drove me to Aqueduct on a chilly winter afternoon to sample the bread and butter – and the waft of cannabis.

That odour always bring me back to the (non-) working man's racetrack near JFK Airport. Such US venues attract those struggling about society's fringes – in this case colourful folk of West Indian origin with a penchant for the "herb".

'Racinos' (tracks extant due to casino income) are pretty ubiquitous in the land of Trump. In the '50s, with racing attracting more crowds than any other sport, its leaders had to confront the colossus that television was rapidly becoming.

They could go along for the ride, see where it took the sport – or shy away for fear folk would stay home to watch on TV instead. They went with the latter, field sports the former and American horse-racing began its descent to the national irrelevance it has become.

At The Races' (ATR) admission it likely will not broadcast Irish racing in high definition until 2019 is a first-world problem, of course. Not long ago one had to go racing or to the betting shop to see how one's wager would work out. However, that does not prohibit us from assessing where we are.

When Sky unveiled HD with characteristic hyperbole, I was not alone in being sceptical. Did you know that was over a decade ago? And we settle into 2017 with Irish racing, the sport which we're the best in the world at, broadcast on the box in bog-standard quality.

TVs are bigger, thinner, slicker; technology so innovative that any channel eschewing HD is increasingly exposed for that anachronism. If I'm on Youtube, I am apt to immediately check the quality settings if a video is not in high-definition – and memory retains when RTE 1 amounted to half of our TV channels at home.

HD has played its part in making David Attenborough more influential than ever in his 90s. The pixelated offering Irish racing fans are still reliant on is simply not good enough at this stage.

Many will be unconvinced. I was too until Irish tracks began showing HD in-house. Three years ago this weekend, a Cork steward drew me to the TVs they were now utilising to review replays. The clarity was stark. I was sold.

"These pictures are so good," one steward said to another, "we can nearly lip-read what the jockeys are saying to each other."

Ever back one in head-bob, the outcome unknown? Next time, if it's a meet shown on ATR and RTE (HD), you'll know what channel to be watching for the freeze-frame and the pursuit of serenity.

The racecourses HD-equipped, it is beholden on ATR to arm itself and transmit to us, untrammelled. ATR needs Irish racing – it could surely not sustain itself without it, as Racing UK has nearly all of the Premier League access in Britain – and its broadcasters' enthusiasm for our product illustrates that.

This is where it gets somewhat complex. At The Races' majority shareholders are Sky – which obviously wants the channel to go HD – and Arena Racing Company (ARC), which owns 16 tracks in Britain and recently agreed a two-year on-course production deal with SIS that precludes HD footage.

For ATR to have Irish racing in HD it must have all its British races – roughly double the Irish number – in HD too. And not only is there the ARC issue: SIS, which relays the Irish pictures, has not yet installed the necessary fibre cables at all Irish venues, something quite problematic in this regard.

Picture quality is not the only inadequacy that needs addressing. Another is camera work, while the paucity of crowd noise has become so established as to escape notice. Neither of these is an ATR issue.

There are too few camera angles and directors' continuing insistence on dramatic late changes is irritating. Review Easy Boy's run (on the ATR website's superb replay service) at Dundalk on Friday. Cantering for most of the straight, he is about to challenge when he disappears from the screen, like any other runner coming stand's side.

And if those tasked with football coverage seek to smother profanities coming from the ultras, the answer in Irish racing seems to be to drown out all crowd audio if at all possible.

Sometimes, of course, there is not much noise but Horse Racing Ireland is to make some. "Darren Lawlor did lots of work, some time ago, on upgrading the quality of the pictures," CEO Brian Kavanagh says.

"We expected it would go HD this year – in ATR and in betting shops – and I'll speak to ATR shortly. The direct-to-home rights expire after 2018 and are then for negotiation."

Racing must do all it can to earn a place in the hearts of the next generation. ITV had its second broadcast on Saturday and, while its team is clearly trying to broaden the sport's appeal, it has achieved this without falling into that old trap of insecurity, so long an affliction in the media across the water.

Saturday's package was excellent, akin to a more relaxed second date after the would-be lovers tried too hard the time before. It helped that the likeable Colin Tizzard revealed yet another star in Finian's Oscar.

He greeted the Dorset morning to glance at Finian's Oscar, Thistlecrack, Cue Card and Native River in the flesh. Definition doesn't get much higher than that.

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