Racing: BBC face a Festival challenge: Tradition may be the main barrier to Channel 4 winning the television rights to Cheltenham - Greg Wood on a contract contest in the Cotswolds

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THEY ARE not about to fill in the open ditches or remove the statue of Arkle from the paddock, but some time in the next couple of weeks, the board of Cheltenham racecourse may cause grave offence to National Hunt's more traditional followers. The television rights at the home of jumps racing are due for renewal, and for the first time in almost 40 years, the BBC is in serious danger of losing the contract.

It is illogical (in fact, plain daft), but certain sporting events - Five Nations' rugby, Wimbledon, the Cheltenham Festival - seem to 'belong' to the BBC. It probably has much to do with childhood memories. Ask any racing follower short of their 50th birthday to recall the first time they watched the Gold Cup, and the answer will be along the lines of: 'It was 1960-something. I can't remember the name of the winner, but it was definitely Peter O'Sullevan doing the commentary.' (By contrast, the Cup Final, which until recently was televised by both the BBC and ITV, does not generate similar sentiment).

Live Premier League football now belongs to Sky, and the most recent Rugby Union World Cup was broadcast on ITV. Yet still the air of tradition about BBC coverage of some events remains the major obstacle when a younger station - Channel 4, in this case - bids to take over, no matter how experienced or professional the challenger may be.

Channel 4 tendered a bid when the BBC's Cheltenham contract (which includes the right to cover the Mackeson Gold Cup, Bula Hurdle and Tripleprint Gold Cup in addition to the three-day Festival meeting) was last renewed five years ago, but felt that its offer was not treated with the seriousness it deserved.

This time, however, Michael Grade, the controller of Channel 4, took personal charge of the station's pitch to the Cheltenham executive, while in financial terms its bid is believed to exceed considerably the price being paid by the BBC. At a time when racing is opening up to new ideas and priorities, National Hunt's headquarters must at the very least treat Channel 4's approach with considerable respect.

'We saw Channel 4 a couple of weeks ago, and the BBC very recently,' Edward Gillespie, Cheltenham's managing director, said yesterday. 'We were interested in a mix of style, the number of days that would be covered, the number of races that would be covered, flexibility, likely audiences and, last but not least, cash. But it's not simply a case of getting the maximum amount possible, everything has got to fit together.'

The question of style may prove to be crucial. Though a majority of Channel 4's presenters are intelligent, articulate and knowledgeable, they are sometimes smothered (or should that be shouted down?) by their more excitable colleagues. While racegoers associate Cheltenham with classless over-indulgence, the racecourse's board has a strong county-set element which would identify rather more closely with the BBC's Julian Wilson than with John McCririck.

The one certain winner in the current negotiations, however, is the course itself. 'Sky TV dropped out of the running quite quickly when we mentioned the sort of money we would be interested in,' Gillespie said, 'and since we are a non-profit

taking organisation, all the money we make is ploughed back in. The biggest benefit will be to racegoers, trainers and owners.' It is a thought which might provide a useful antidote to the inevitable pangs of regret if Cheltenham decides to go commercial.

(Photograph omitted)