There are unlikely to be many mourners when At The Races officially expires at midnight on Monday. After all, and with all due respect to the television channel’s home in Milton Keynes, it is going to a much better place. Just short of its 18th birthday, the adoption papers were signed and approved earlier this year and from Tuesday, it is official. At The Races is part of the Sky Sports “family” now.
The “At The Races” name is old enough for a PR executive with political ambitions called David Cameron to have been peripherally involved with the initial launch in 2000, when few could have guessed that he would one day break the country. At the time, the future of horse racing on television was thought to involve, among other things, broadcasting one race a day in the lunchtime slot once inhabited in the 70s by Fred Trueman’s incomparable Indoor League. And unless my memory is playing up, this actually happened, for six months or so, until the concept was gently laid to rest.
But as the new year begins on Tuesday, At The Races will finally be consigned to history. In its place: Sky Sports Racing, the youngest member of the squad of channels broadcast from Sky Centre in west London, alongside Sky Sports Premier League, Football, Cricket, Golf, F1 and others that cover multiple sports. Britain’s second-biggest spectator sport – 500,000 paying spectators in front of rugby union at the latest count – now has a place on Sky to call its own.
What is different about Sky Sports Racing is that it will be available to subscribers to a basic satellite or cable package. Anyone who is used to scrolling past At The Races in search of Dave or Discovery will now find themselves scrolling past Sky Sports Racing instead. The brand will sit there on the electronic programme guide, as a reminder that (some) Premier League football matches and various other delights are also available if you merely agree to part with about £300 a year.
But Sky is not simply putting its name behind the rebranding of a channel in which it already held a significant stake. There is a major investment of money and resources going into the project as well, with some fresh faces among the presenters, the wholesale move to a swanky new studio at Sky Centre, an overdue upgrade to broadcast in HD and plenty of high-end technology on hand to assist with pre- and post-race analysis.
Of course, broadcasters who are launching – or relaunching – their racing coverage always promise to revolutionise the viewing experience with cutting-edge tech. Channel 4 did it, ITV did it and now Sky is doing the same. But having spent five minutes playing around with one of their top-of-the-range video analysis tools during a recent tour of the studios, I can confirm it is a remarkable piece of kit. It is also quick and intuitive to use – “If Jamie Carragher can get it, anyone can” was how one producer put it – and could bring a new level of depth to Sky’s analysis.
This could prove to be a genuine competitive advantage in Sky Sports Racing’s long-running domestic rivalry with the subscription-based Racing UK, which will officially rebrand itself as Racing TV (RTV) from Tuesday. The two name-changes on the same day are far from coincidental, as it was RUK’s audacious – and, arguably, somewhat injudicious – decision to snatch coverage of Irish racing from ATR that may have stung Sky into action in the first place.
The switch of Irish pictures to a subscription channel – which Irish racing did not want but could do nothing about – initially seemed to be game over for ATR. RUK’s expectation seems to have been that its long-standing rival would now limp along, hopelessly weakened, or possibly turn up its toes altogether. It was not one of its better predictions. Not only is RTV now facing a rival with an internationally recognised brand and a budget to match, SSR can also expect to benefit from cross-promotional opportunities across the other Sky channels.
RTV must also try to squeeze live coverage from 26 Irish tracks into its schedule alongside the pictures from its 37 British racecourse shareholders, and keep everyone happy with the height of their profile as they do so. It will not be easy. Irish racing, already suspicious that it has been sold down the river, will not take much persuading that its fears are justified. It will not help if, or when, meetings are shunted to online-only coverage – or “shoved down some internet pipe” as Michael O’Leary, Ireland’s leading owner, recently put it. The British courses, on the other hand, and the smaller ones in particular, will kick up a stink if they feel they are being edged out to accommodate the Irish coverage, and as shareholders they will expect to be heard.
Sky has also flexed its financial muscle by persuading two of RTV’s most prestigious tracks, Ascot and Chester, to jump ship from early next year. RTV always likes to claim that it has the very best of British racing – in the past, some of its people were known to sneeringly refer to ATR as “All The Rubbish” – but without Ascot, it is like a football team claiming to have all the best players, except Messi.
All this means that when it comes to the front line of its major commercial battle, Sky Sports Racing will feel that it starts the year more than holding its own. That should, in turn, free up some resources to engage in manoeuvres on another front: a potential bid to secure the sport’s “terrestrial” rights, held on a four‑year monopoly by ITV, when the contract comes up for renewal at the end of 2020.
If Sky is seriously considering a move for the mainstream rights to Cheltenham, Aintree, Royal Ascot, Glorious Goodwood and York among others, it will need to start putting its bid together within the next few months. That could put several pundits who are due to be working for both ITV Racing and Sky Sports Racing in 2019 in a difficult, if not untenable, position. How can either side hope to keep commercially sensitive information in-house when some of the staff are on both payrolls?
It promises to be an intriguing subplot for those of us watching from ringside as the new era in racing broadcasting develops over the months to come. If Sky Sports Racing’s coverage is judged a success – and given the amount of money, effort, talent and tech involved, it should be – then tracks such as Cheltenham, Ascot and Goodwood will be keen to hear what their biggest meetings could look like if Sky gets the terrestrial rights, and how much it will offer.
This time last year, Sky was something of a sleeping partner in At The Races. This time next year, it could be on the verge of becoming the dominant player in televised racing, and the action in front of the cameras will be scarcely the half of it.