Racing: Dishing up a racing feast at home

Greg Wood on Britain's first television channel dedicated to a single sport
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The Independent Online
Anyone who has ever sworn never to visit a betting shop again will be pleased to hear that, from next Monday, you may not need to.

At 11am, The Racing Channel, available to Sky subscribers with a satellite dish, will start broadcasting two entire meetings each afternoon, not to mention news, features and recordings of the previous day's racing. Then, just install a smoke machine, pin a copy of the Life to the wall and hire someone to stand in the corner to curse and cough, and suddenly your living room could be the local Ladbrokes.

It promises to be a remarkable new service, not least because it will be Britain's first television channel dedicated to a single sport, and yet another important step for an industry which, despite its conservative reputation, now embraces technology like few others.

Just 10 years ago, remember, off-course punters needing up-to-the-minute information still relied on the Extel blower, an accident-prone contraption through which most commentators sounded drunk, foreign or both. Today, a new generation of punters has grown up with pictures beamed into betting shops by Satellite Information Services, and a domestic racing channel from the same organisation is simply the logical next step.

A subscription to The Racing Channel will cost pounds 19.95 per month, or just under pounds 5 a week, a charge which has been carefully chosen to match the price of a daily racing newspaper. "Our market research showed that five per cent of Sky's viewers would be interested or very interested in subscribing to a channel at that price," George Irvine, SIS's programme controller, said yesterday. "We are hoping to have 30,000 viewers in our first year, and 100,000 by year three."

Anyone who currently receives Sky's multi-channels or Sport package via satellite will be able to sign up to The Racing Channel in little more than 30 seconds, with a single phone call to the subscriptions centre. Unfortunately for Britain's one million subscribers to cable television, however, cable suppliers are at present reluctant to provide the new channel.

This reticence seems strange, particularly in view of the fact that live racing every afternoon should generate plenty of business via cable-supplied phone lines as punters make contact with their bookmakers. The only option for cable customers seems to be to pester their suppliers until The Racing Channel is made available.

Punters who succeed in getting hooked up will receive a five-hour service, from 11am to 4pm, between November and April, with an extension until 7pm from May, often followed, of course, by live evening racing on the main Sky Sports channel. "The first hour will be the previous day's racing," Irvine said, "followed by a live lunchtime magazine programme, which will be studio-based but also go live to the course for chat and interviews and so on.

"Then we go live to the racing, and coverage will differ somewhat from what you see on BBC1 or Channel 4. From the stalls to the line will be SIS coverage, but before the race we will put more emphasis on the areas which punters don't feel they get enough of, which is paddock commentaries and a more in-depth look at them going down, as well as video form-guides. There will be opportunities for interviews with owners and trainers and everybody else, but our research suggests people want to see more of the horses."

Less talk, more horses - it is not a formula which either of the terrestrial channels would recognise. If The Racing Channel can point the way towards racing coverage which concentrates on the action rather than the presenters' personalities, pounds 5 a week is surely the bargain of the decade.

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