For the most committed racing fans, TV coverage of the sport will look quite different from 1 January, when both RacingUK and At The Races, the satellite channels that broadcast every race in Britain and Ireland, will be renamed and relaunched with significant changes to their roster of tracks and presenters.
At The Races will become Sky Sports Racing and move its base to Sky’s studios in west London, while RacingUK will turn into RacingTV. The pictures from about 30 tracks will also jump between the two broadcasters by the middle of next year. Ascot, the biggest individual prize of all, will switch to Sky in time for the Royal meeting in June, while Chester will also be on Sky Sports Racing when its season begins in May. Chelmsford City will move in the opposite direction, and so too, somewhat controversially, will coverage from all 26 racecourses in Ireland.
The launch of Sky Sports Racing takes place on Wednesday morning, when the full team of presenters will be announced. The new faces on RacingTV, meanwhile, were revealed on Saturday morning. Gary O’Brien, Ruby Walsh, Kevin O’Ryan, Donn McClean and Kate Harrington were unveiled as presenters which the channel hopes will help to persuade fans who do not currently subscribe to RacingUK to pay €31/month for continued access to all Irish racing.
There was, of course, a somewhat unusual back-story to Saturday’s RTV launch. Normally when a channel rebrands with extra content, you would expect the provider of that extra content to be as happy with the situation as the channel’s executives.
In this case, though, Irish racing was not exactly tempted away from At The Races by the promise of a bright new future. It was more a case of being bundled into the back of a van and driven off at high speed, since Horse Racing Ireland (HRI), the sport’s administrator, had signed away the picture rights to Satellite Information Services (SIS) back in 2016. It was SIS that decided to ditch ATR and sell the rights to RacingUK instead, and there was nothing that anyone in Irish racing could do about it.
Owners, trainers and administrators alike reacted with a mixture of anger and astonishment when the switch was announced in February. Michael O’Leary, the country’s leading owner as well as the chief executive of Ryanair described the move as a “retrograde” step which would be “very bad for Irish racing”.
A major concern in Ireland, aside from the significant extra costs for racing fans, is the sheer volume of content to be squeezed onto RacingTV’s coverage. RTV is owned by its British tracks and when there are clashes on busy days – which are inevitable – the fear is that the British action will take precedence.
Racecourse Media Group (RMG), the parent company of RTV, has attempted to allay those concerns by adopting what Richard FitzGerald, its chief executive, describes somewhat grandly as a “Netflix-style approach” to coverage. Racing UK has around 50,000 subscribers as opposed to the 140 million or so who pay for Netflix, but the point FitzGerald was trying to make is that RTV is “multi-platform”, and available for online streaming to phones, tablets and laptops in addition to the old-fashioned approach of switching on the telly.
Whether that will be enough to convince the critics remains to be seen, and O’Leary told The Irish Times a few days ago that while he accepts Irish racing “has to get on with it”, he still harbours fears that it will be sidelined in favour of British content.
“The worry is the coverage of Thurles on Thursday and the industry day at Fairyhouse on a Tuesday, what kind of coverage will that get?” O’Leary said. “It will be important that Irish racing continues to be on a TV channel and not shoved down some internet pipe.”
Back in February, though, O’Leary also suggested At The Races would probably fold once the Irish content had been stripped from its schedules. In fact, it has come out punching, adding exclusive rights to French racing coverage to its coup of snatching Ascot and Chester away from RTV.
The rebranding as part of the Sky stable is also significant and could herald an attempt to claim the terrestrial rights currently held by ITV when the contract comes up at the end of 2020. If RMG’s swoop for the Irish rights was indeed a cunning plan to finish off its rival, it is starting to look a little Baldrick-esque.
Irish fans who are considering an RTV subscription, incidentally, should definitely wait for the channel to announce its launch offers, which could put a big dent in the annual fee. Its recent Black Friday deal gave new customers 10 months access at a rate of €12.50/month, a saving of well over 50%, and something similar can be expected to kick-start the relaunched channel next month. For punters who have both the commitment and the cash to spare, it could prove difficult to resist.
Coole Well (2.00 Plumpton) attempts a recovery mission after being backed into 2-1 from 3-1 four days ago at Taunton (2m good), on his hurdling debut and first run for the Jamie Snowden stable. The bets of Coole Well’s backers were sunk when 5lb-claiming conditional rider Max Kendrick was unseated at the fifth flight of hurdles.
Kendrick should be up to the task of staying aboard this time – he has won 21 races National Hunt races in the last five years. Over a similar distance to Taunton’s his mount must also cope with a far more testing surface. However, a study of Coole Well’s form in two NH Flat races in the soft at Newbury and Kempton early this year (when trained by Ben Pauling) points to this five-year-old being capable of winning in this company.
Royal Claret (1.30 Plumpton) seemed a staying hurdler to keep an eye on when winning in the mud at Hereford in March, despite being stopped in her tracks when hampered at the 10th flight. She made up considerable lost ground to lead near the finish. Then, on her first run since April, she was narrowly beaten at Chepstow four weeks ago, and certainly appears worth siding with in this mares’ handicap hurdle.