Sky Sports Racing, which will replace the At The Races digital channel in 14 million homes in Britain and Ireland from 2019, confirmed on Wednesday that it has secured a three-year deal to broadcast French racing from its scheduled launch date of 1 January.
The deal, a strong statement of intent for the rebranded channel, will also increase speculation that Sky will now launch a serious bid for the exclusive rights to British racing’s biggest events when ITV’s four-year contract runs out at the end of 2020.
Coverage of French racing will switch to Sky Sports Racing from Racing UK, in something of a tit-for-tat after RUK snatched the rights to the Irish racing programme from ATR this year. The package includes 27 Group One Flat races as well as major events over jumps and, in a first for British audiences, several big races from the “trotting” sphere including the Prix D’Amerique at Vincennes in January.
The loss of Irish racing to its fierce rival looked like a crushing blow for At The Races when it was announced in February. Since then, however, it has recovered impressively, adding Ascot, Chester and Bangor-on-Dee to its roster of tracks before its rebrand to become the latest channel in the Sky Sports stable. As now, it will be available to anyone who has a basic subscription package to either the Sky or Virgin Media digital platforms.
It will now come as a major surprise if Sky Sports does not mount a concerted bid for racing’s “terrestrial” rights, which switched from Channel 4 to ITV at the start of 2017.
ITV made it clear this year that it sees Sky as a potential rival for the rights when it “downgraded” coverage of the Shergar Cup from its main channel to ITV4 in an apparent fit of pique following Ascot’s decision to sign up with Sky.
With initial discussions over the next four-year contract likely to begin in the new year, the head-to-head between ITV and Sky could also place presenters who work for both ITV and ATR in the difficult position of being forced to take sides. Those used by both channels include Matt Chapman, ITV’s reporter in the betting ring, and Luke Harvey, who was named Broadcaster of the Year by the Horserace Writers’ and Photographers’ Association in 2017.