Of all the news stories to break over the last month, undoubtedly the most significant was the announcement that ITV has been awarded the contract to broadcast terrestrial horseracing from 2017 in a four-year deal.
Since the BBC lost the rights to showcase the sport, Channel 4 has been racing’s free-to-air partner since 2013. Unfortunately its coverage has been beset by an alarming and dramatic fall in viewers, including for headline events such as Royal Ascot and the Derby, which in turn has prompted a steady stream of damaging headlines targeting both its production and presentation.
The afternoon show has failed to resonate with a large number of racing fans, who have decided to go elsewhere
Exactly why Channel 4’s racing audience has dwindled so severely is not, on the face of it, an easy question to answer. It can’t all be down to the fact that John Francome – excellent though he was – is no longer on the team. The broadcaster has put a considerable amount of resources into the afternoon show but it has, apparently, failed to resonate with a large number of racing fans, who have decided to go elsewhere.
Nearly everyone would accept that Channel 4 never had a hope of recording the kind of numbers achieved by the BBC but in truth that is not the issue here; the fact is, since IMG replaced Highflyer as programme maker, it has failed to match even its own reduced viewing numbers – and there is little sign that this trend can be reversed.
So an old friend will return to the fray for the first time since 1985 and the days of the popular ‘ITV Seven’ bet with a simple brief: get more people to switch on and watch racing. Exactly what methods it uses to do that and which presenters it selects – Nick Luck should be big odds-on to land the lead role – will be interesting, but perhaps the best thing in ITV’s favour is that it is not Channel 4.
The major concern over the switch in provider concerns the role of ITV4. We have been told that 34 of the biggest days will be shown on ITV1, yet a number of Group/Grade 1 events, important for the racecourses where they are held and the often-mentioned ‘narrative’ of the season, will feature on its sister channel.
Why is this an issue? Aside from the question of how many viewers will ‘find’ ITV4 on their remote control – Howard Wright has his own view on that matter, page 26 – creating a division in the racing ‘product’ could well have repercussions the next time the rights are negotiated. Will we see a situation whereby only the ‘crown jewel’ fixtures are deemed desirable?
Time will tell if this is the last deal in which almost 100 days of racing are broadcast on terrestrial television. One suspects it is, however RMG Chief Executive Richard FitzGerald, who led the negotiating team that selected ITV as racing’s new partner from next year, is hopeful that the agreement will prove a boon to the sport.
You may well see a horse carrying jockey James Reveley or the red and white silks of owner Terry Neill on Channel 4 this year. However the chances are you would have far better luck catching them on French station Equidia, for both men have found there are more substantial riches to be enjoyed on the other side of the Channel.
Neill has enjoyed plenty of big days in Britain under both codes with the likes of Red Evie, Puntal and Gloria Victis, whose star shone all too briefly, however his disenchantment with the cost versus return ratio has seen him curtail his ownership interests at home, as he tells Chris McGrath.
Reveley’s name is synonymous with northern jump racing, yet he has found truth in the saying that fortune favours the brave and is now one of the most in-demand riders around Auteuil and Pau. As he tells Tim Richards, such has been his level of success that he is contemplating a more permanent move, one that could even deliver him the French champion jockey title.