If you are a keen racing fan, the chances are you subscribe to Racing UK. Or, at the very least, you know where to find its free-to-air rival channel, At The Races, on your remote.
Between them, they show every race in the UK and Ireland live, and most of the big events from France too. Even if you miss a race or a meeting, you can still catch up with the replays, any time you want, on the respective websites. And you can do that via your mobile phone as well as your PC.
Compared to life in the last century, RUK and ATR represent TV utopia for the sport’s enthusiasts and professionals. They also represent one of the reasons why the number of viewers of racing on terrestrial TV is declining. Not even the most polished of professional coverage by Channel 4 in recent years has been able to arrest that decline.
However, encouragingly, the key statistic of audience share has remained healthy. In other words, while the digital revolution means fewer people are watching orthodox TV in an orthodox way, a respectable percentage of those who do still quite like a bit of racing when it’s on, which has tempted ITV to take the plunge and take over terrestrial coverage of the sport from January 2017.
The days when the next generation of racing aficionados were weaned on, or had their interest triggered by, Grand National Day in front of the telly might be long gone. But when we can be dragged from our mobiles, laptops, tablets, Twitter feeds and games consoles, and we do switch on that telly, ITV is still one of the two channels we are most likely to tune into, along with BBC. So for them to commit to no fewer than 40 days of live racing coverage on its main platform next year, plus almost 60 more on its subsidiary, ITV4, is some achievement for the sport.
Quite simply, racing has never had it so good in terms of TV coverage. Two dedicated channels of its own, plus the support of one of the country’s main two stations, not to mention that of digital behemoth, Sky Sports, who regularly screen ATR broadcasts and have also stepped in to show the Arc next month.
The nuts and bolts of ITV’s four-year deal, worth £30 million, are slowly coming together, including the presenters who will front the shows. The likes of Ed Chamberlin, Francesca Cumani, Rishi Persad, Hayley Turner, Oli Bell, Mick Fitzgerald, Matt Chapman and Sally Ann Grassick appear to have been unveiled. The likes of Channel 4 quartet Nick Luck, Jim McGrath, Tanya Stevenson and Graham Cunningham appear to have been jettisoned.
Opinions will differ wildly on such decisions. One person’s cup of tea is a very different kettle of fish to another person, if you know what I mean. And as someone who gets irritated by the most trivial of trivialities, I don’t think I’m best qualified to comment. Trawling through the RUK replays of Ayr Gold Cup Day last weekend reduced me to fits of apoplexy when I realised a commentator is still unable to say that simplest of French words, ‘Le’, correctly? He pronounces it ‘Lay’.
We won’t know if the new appointments are successful or not until the tone and taste of ITV’s approach are established. If they adhere to the advice proffered by trainer Mark Johnston, the amount of time devoted to betting will be slashed. If they adhere to the advice of others, more time will be devoted to magazine-type features that go behind the racing scenes.
What is certain is that ITV face a challenge they are far from guaranteed to get right. They need to appeal to an audience far wider than those of RUK and ATR, while at the same time please viewers with a serious connection to the sport.
There is much talk of more fun and lightness being injected into the coverage. Again, as someone who much prefers gravitas to levitas on my racing screen, I’m not best placed to comment. Suffice to say that it’s surely not too much to ask for presenters and pundits who are natural broadcasters, know their subject, have done their homework and are not besotted with making themselves, rather than the action, the centre of attention.
And of course, it is the action that matters most. So here’s the full list of the 40 days you can tuck into, live and free, on ITV’s main channel in 2017:
JAN 1: Cheltenham and Musselburgh;
MARCH 14-17: all four days of the Cheltenham Festival;
APRIL 6-8: all three days of Aintree’s Grand National meeting;
APRIL 22: Ayr’s Scottish Grand National Day and Newbury’s Greenham Day;
APRIL 29: Sandown’s Jumps Finale Day and Haydock;
MAY 6: Newmarket’s 2,000 Guineas Day and Goodwood;
MAY 7: Newmarket’s 1,000 Guineas Day and Hamilton;
MAY 20: Newbury’s Lockinge Day and Newmarket;
JUNE 2: Epsom’s Oaks Day;
JUNE 3: Epsom’s Derby Day;
JUNE 20-24: all five days of Royal Ascot;
JULY 8: Sandown’s Eclipse Day and Haydock;
JULY 15: Newmarket’s July Cup Day, Ascot and York;
JULY 29: Ascot’s King George Day and York;
AUGUST 1-5: all five days of Glorious Goodwood;
AUGUST 23-26: all four days of York’s Ebor Festival;
SEPTEMBER 9: Haydock’s Sprint Cup Day, Ascot and Kempton;
SEPTEMBER 16: Doncaster’s St Leger Day and Chester;
OCTOBER 14: Newmarket’s Future Champions Saturday and York;
OCTOBER 21: Ascot’s British Champions Day;
NOVEMBER 18: Cheltenham’s Open Saturday and Lingfield;
NOVEMBER 25: Haydock’s Betfair Chase Day and Ascot;
DECEMBER 2: Newbury’s Hennessy Day and Newcastle’s Fighting Fifth Day;
DECEMBER 26: Kempton’s King George Day and Wetherby.
Newbury deluge underlined the value of drainage systems at our racecourses
Heavy rain has tried its best to put a dampener on the 2016 Flat season. With the exception of Goodwood, the major meetings have hovered warily under clouds that have either opened or threatened to open. And those clouds burst spectacularly just before Newbury’s two-day fixture last weekend, depositing 74mm in a matter of hours, plunging the going from Good to Firm to Heavy and precipitating a flood of non-runners. By Saturday afternoon, however, the ground was back to Good to Soft, underlining dramatically the value of effective drainage systems that so many of our leading tracks can now call upon. Ffos Las is the latest to have one installed so, hopefully, we can look forward to action a bit easier on the eye than usual at the Welsh venue this coming Jumps season.