Chris McGrath: Racing's future coverage on television threatened by self-satisfied attitude
Saturday 10 January 2009
They got as far as a second inspection at Kelso yesterday morning, before giving up, which is progress of a sort. And they may even finally manage some jumping at Ayr and Wetherby this afternoon. Regardless, it has certainly been a cheerless start to the year for punters, pecking for scraps on the frozen ground. But how would it be if the deprivation never came to an end? The terrible truth is that we could yet find out.
In time, we may look back on even days like these with bitter nostalgia. It may seem cold out there, but be sure you make hay while the sun still shines. It is a trifle unfair, perhaps, but you only have to look at what they are showing us today to realise why terrestrial broadcasters are taking a long, hard look at horseracing. Or why the sport's indignation increasingly resembles that of the man suddenly turned into icy streets, after years being fed grapes (peeled ones, mark you) by nubile attendants.
It does not matter how self-righteous people become, how sanctimoniously they remind the BBC – who plan to savage coverage to 14 days in 2010, from 29 this year, and 79 ten years ago – of its "obligations" to the racing public. The fact is that racing had become groggily complacent in the stupendous privileges it has somehow enjoyed, in print as on the screen, entirely disproportionate to its true standing as a minority sport.
Those who had the temerity last year not to be "excited" by that laughable enterprise, the Sovereign Series, were reprimanded as cynics who would never welcome wholesome ambition. But the true cynics were its authors, whose glib, ignorant pursuit of gain transparently threatened the sport's fragile relationship with broadcasters.
At the time it was unveiled, the project at least offered a touch of black comedy. Now it stands revealed as the final delusion of a tragic fantasist – the moment when the harmless old madman, who has for years been telling everyone that he is Rameses II, is rescued from the sewer, complaining that the Nile is so much colder than in his younger days.
Some of the claims they made for the concept – "a Champions' League for racing", no less – were specious to the point of being outrageous. Remarkably, it seems that they want to persevere with the format, even though the only competition they have succeeded in provoking between broadcasters is one to determine who can flee fastest. Here, for those still clinging to any perilous misapprehensions, are one or two realities to ponder. Coverage of racing is expensive to produce and, measured by audiences, generally not worth the effort. Perhaps half a million tune into an average Saturday afternoon. Put on an old film, at no cost, and the numbers would hold up very healthily, thank you. A really old film, moreover, might not alter the demographics very much, either. This afternoon Channel 4 screens two handicaps on the all-weather at Kempton confined to horses rated below 54 – that is to say, horses that would struggle to win a seller. And, as we all know, they will make an excellent job of it. Sadly, however, Channel 4 is rather like the whore with a heart. Its bosses make racing feel loved, but only because they are paid to do so. The last two Channel 4 contracts have only been salvaged by 11th-hour sponsorships, however, first by the Tote and now by Sheikh Mohammed. And racecourses, unsurprisingly, are uncomfortable with the anomaly that they are expected to pay a broadcaster, rather than the other way round. The BBC, in contrast, is interested only in the high days and holidays, and as such expects to fork out for the privilege. But racing is so desperate to maintain its BBC profile that it is apparently now offering them some of Channel 4's most precious slots – including the Guineas meeting at Newmarket. That is a particularly dangerous game. Channel 4's involvement is precarious enough, as it is, while no sacrifice seems likely to persuade the BBC from its infatuation with flagship events. They do not make the remotest pretence that they want viewers to develop an organic understanding of Aintree, Epsom or Ascot. You can certainly question their editorial priorities. They seem eager enough to give precisely such context to the sports central to the 2012 Olympics, despite the fact that these almost invariably have a far, far smaller constituency even than racing. Sadly, there seems little hope of avoiding this kind of hysterical loss of perspective. It is naïve, admittedly, to yearn for the BBC to be punished, for Channel 4 to get the lot. The only days coveted by the BBC are the few that might be worth paying for. Interesting, then, to see moves afoot to remove the protected status of the Grand National, for perhaps the only outfit that might generate some meaningful rights competition now is Sky.
Other, bigger sports have already addressed the associated dilemma, of cash or kudos. We have reached the stage where the BBC does not even bid for Test cricket. Racing is already served by two dedicated channels, but it is hard to deny that the loss of routine terrestrial coverage would be horribly corrosive. All that can be hoped, for now, is that those entrusted with its future learn a bit of humility. If they want to sell horses to TV, perhaps they shouldn't flog quite so many dead ones.
Russell gives green light to Zaffarella
In the bad old days, ideas on the Turf were not represented by a light bulb, but by two sticks being rubbed together. So let's hear it for the flexibility and dynamism you can nowadays expect in racecourses and administrators. It is not so long ago that the present freeze would have petrified the sport altogether. But the innovation of frost blankets salvaged New Year's Day at Cheltenham, and Channel 4 today visits extemporised cards at both Kempton and Ayr.
It will certainly be good to see horses back on the green stuff at Ayr, where Companero (2.0) can confirm himself a highly progressive stayer, and Tartan Snow (2.30) can find compensation for his fall in the lead last time. Something Silver (next best 3.0) disappointed here last time but deserves another chance after a promising comeback, while Zaffarella (nap 4.0) suggested herself an improved mare on her debut for Lucinda Russell's stable before Christmas.
Otherwise it is Ireland that has been keeping jumping fans from despair, and a good card at Leopardstown tomorrow features the Pierse Hurdle. Rain would make Psycho a strong fancy; as it is, however, there may be better value about Alpine Eagle (2.20), a lightly-weighted novice who travels keenly and could well find improvement if produced off a strong gallop.
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