Thursday 8 December 2016

Richie Forristal: Move to ITV not so good for Irish horseracing fans

Racing makes big switch as Channel 4 follows BBC in losing coverage

Published 04/01/2016 | 02:30

Shaneshill and Ruby Walsh (left) jump the final fence ahead of Sizing Codelco (Jonathan Burke) on their way to winning the EBF Novice Chase at Naas yesterday Photo: Seb Daly / SPORTSFILE
Shaneshill and Ruby Walsh (left) jump the final fence ahead of Sizing Codelco (Jonathan Burke) on their way to winning the EBF Novice Chase at Naas yesterday Photo: Seb Daly / SPORTSFILE
Trainer Willie Mullins Photo: Cody Glenn / SPORTSFILE

Our initial reaction to the news that ITV will take over the broadcasting of British racing from Channel 4 in 2017 was one of exasperation that the latter had followed the BBC in deciding that the sport wasn't worth it.

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Channel 4 had recently announced that it is to become the terrestrial home of Formula One.

When the BBC abandoned horse racing in 2012, Formula One was one of the sports that it stated would benefit by having more funds directed towards retaining and improving its coverage, so it's beginning to look like the corporation's commitment to sport is pretty tenuous.

Anyway, having got into bed with the global brand of fast cars, first impressions were that Channel 4 had opted to relieve themselves of fast horses. However, that seems not to have necessarily been the case.

Reports suggest that Channel 4 did make a serious bid for racing's broadcast rights, but the station, which will have had racing on its screens for nearly 33 years by the time its contract expires, was outbid by ITV. Sky was the only other protagonist in the process.

Over four years, the ITV deal is worth £30m to British racing, double the value of the existing deal. That kind of revenue would have been hard to refuse, especially when it was inevitable that Channel 4 would have been unable to sustain showing 90-odd days of live racing, given the clashes with Formula One.

Viewing figures would simply have demanded as much. Formula One's international appeal routinely attracts upwards of 3m viewers; the Derby was this year watched by around 1.4m people in Britain.

Anomaly

Around 8.8m watched the Grand National, which remains something of an anomaly, given its unique nature, however waning.

Remember, Champions Day attracted just 367,000 viewers, the nadir of a damning plunge that has occurred since Highflyer's production was eschewed in favour of IMG's when Channel 4 landed the exclusive rights in 2012.

That deal, which ultimately saw long-standing presenting linchpins and respected authority figures such as John Francome and Alastair Down sidelined, was negotiated by the Racecourse Media Group's CE, Richard FitzGerald. The same man has overseen the ITV arrangement, so here's hoping his judgement proves better this time, which shouldn't be too difficult.

The numbers don't lie. There are some fine professionals involved in Channel 4's current output, but they lack their predecessors' charisma and chemistry.

Whereas in the past healthy debate and conflict was a natural by-product of the production - as it should be in any sporting analysis - now there is a sense that much of what prevails is staged and contrived, or forced at best. As a result, people have turned off, with specialist alternatives available in the shape of At The Races and Racing UK.

From an Irish point of view, the impending switch is certainly not good. ITV apparently has a greater viewership reach than Channel 4, but 60 days of prime-time racing will be shown on ITV4, which isn't available on Saorview or on some other providers' offerings.

The likes of the Cheltenham Festival, the Grand National and the Derby are among 34 races considered marquee events, but the Guineas, the July Cup, the King Georges, the St Leger, the Betfair Chase, the Open meeting and the Hennessy are among those that could be marginalised on ITV4. The prospect of not being able to view such iconic events on terrestrial television here is alarming.

All of this is a considerable gamble by RMG, as racing will simply no longer be staple viewing every Saturday. Maybe it will work and viewing figures will recover and help to generate betting levy, but neither would it be remotely fair to blame the Channel 4 production for the perilous state that racing finds itself in on the fringes of relevance as a modern-day spectator sport.

The powers that be continue to take their eye off the ball, forever undermining the end product.

Look at how meddling with the Grand National has eroded its magic, or how so many big races now are lost in the fog of controversy that follows. Whether it is whip suspensions, inconsistent stewarding, faulty weighing procedures or ineligible horses, frequently something takes away from what happens between the start and finish lines. It shouldn't.

Then there is the proliferation of racing. There is too much of it in Britain and in Ireland, but it all comes back to tracks' need to generate media rights revenue.

The more they race, the more they earn, even if venues are deserted. Right now, the bottom line is that their bottom line has no real correlation with attendances.

There was some fine racing at Leopardstown last week, but Willie Mullins (right) and Gigginstown Stud dominated the major events, between them accruing six of the seven Grade Ones. There have been two Grade Ones run so far this year, and Mullins has won both with long odds-on shots, namely the impressive novice hurdlers, Yorkhill and Bellshill.

What the champion trainer has done and is doing is incredible, especially when Cheltenham rolls round every March, but such habitual dominance does little for generating intrigue. Crowds at Leopardstown fell 6pc year-on-year to the lowest tally since 2012, while the bookies' take plunged 21pc. It doesn't take a genius to understand why that might be the case.

Levels of competition need to be increased to ensure the sport doesn't become irrelevant, so a slashing of the fixture list has to be considered. At the same time, opportunities should be created for fledgling trainers, because they are an endangered species.

Horse Racing Ireland (HRI) recently unveiled its spending plans for 2016, prioritising another increase in prize money.

It is not an entirely unjustified manoeuvre, but more imaginative thinking is required to revitalise the grassroots, as the numbers able to make a living by sourcing and producing equine talent have dropped off a cliff.

Traditionally, that was the backbone of the industry in this country. The further away we drift from that solid foundation, the more worrying it is from a long-term perspective.

Yorkhill scores for in-form Mullins team

Yorkhill's straightforward triumph in Saturday's Tolworth Hurdle was a first in the Sandown race for an Irish-based horse.

Willie Mullins's unbeaten gelding, having just his second start over flights, is now second favourite for both the Supreme and Neptune Novices' Hurdles at Cheltenham, behind stablemates Min and Bellshill respectively.

Incredibly, he was Mullins's 12th winner from his last 14 runners for Graham and Andrea Wylie, with Nichols Canyon, Up For Review, Bellshill, Shaneshill and Black Hercules all unbeaten this term.

Ruby Walsh never had a moment's worry on Yorkhill en route to ensuring that Mullins began 2016 as he ended 2015. The champion trainer's 33 Grade Ones in 2015 was a calendar year record that trumped his own tally of 30 in the 2014/2015 season.

American Flat handler Bobby Frankel's 2003 total of 25 was the previous high for top-level wins, a record that he took off Aidan O'Brien, who had saddled 23 in 2001 and did so again in 2008.

Walsh, the supreme jump jockey of his generation, rode 22 Grade One winners in 2015 and 18 last season. I'd venture that both are also unprecedented hauls.

L'Ami surges through the slop at Plumpton

L'Ami Serge was one of three odds-on shots to prevail in atrocious conditions at Plumpton yesterday before racing was abandoned.

Up against just two rivals, Nicky Henderson's smart Supreme Novices' Hurdle fourth jumped soundly and sloshed to victory in pretty facile style for Nico De Boinville.

Pools of water lay on the track as it teemed down rain, and the sceptics weren't short of ammunition when the meeting finally fell to the elements.

Despite the course passing a mid-morning inspection, plenty on social media had speculated that the track's showpiece Sussex National card would not make it beyond the third race.

The refund policy dictates that racegoers will not get their money back after that point, so a bumper pay-out was avoided once the third race took place. Funny that.

Tweet of the weekend

Sarah Lynam (@Lynam_S)

Soll and @tommyscu made for gutsy winners today, but stewards more content totting up smacks & fines than enjoying thrilling sport on offer.

Eddie Lynam's daughter Sarah echoes most people's bewilderment at how another Saturday feature in the UK was unnecessarily spoiled by senseless and exorbitant whip rules.

Numbers Game

12 Irish runners in Britain today. Four trainers are represented at Musselburgh's jumps fixture and one at the all-weather meeting in Wolverhampton.

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