BBC to fight for Grand National

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THE BBC may lose yet another prestigious sporting event from its calendar when its contract with the Grand National comes up for renewal next year.

The organisers of the Grand National have announced that they will consider bids from any terrestrial broadcaster when the BBC's five-year contract to cover racing at Aintree finishes at the end of 2000.

Charles Barnett, managing director of the Liverpool course, said: "We will gladly listen to bids from channels like ITV and Channel 4 - we are not expressing a preference for anybody."

In response, the BBC has already said it will fight to retain rights to the race, which it has televised since 1952. It is also bidding for the Cheltenham Cup which it lost to Channel 4 five years ago.

The Grand National enjoys viewing figures of 12 million each year, making it highly desirable for commercial operators such as Channel 4, especially since the company intends to launch a digital racing channel.

Negotiations to buy rights will begin towards the end of this year - the BBC and Channel 4 seem like the most likely contenders. The BBC, which pays an estimated pounds 2m a year to cover the race, was confident about taking on Channel 4.

"The BBC has won more than 20 sports contracts in competition with other channels and the corporation carried 19 of the 20 most-watched race meetings last year, so we believe we are in a strong position for success," said a spokesperson.

Since the Grand National is a "listed event", it must be screened on one of the main terrestrial channels, although a joint bid with a satellite operator would be allowed.

Mr Barnett added that Aintree "will be looking at a series of factors, including the fee, the likely potential audience and what the bidders can bring in terms of build-up. Nothing has so far been decided."