Tuesday, 10 January 2017
It was certainly a tremendously exciting end to 2016 on the National Hunt scene, not least because of the superb runnings of the Colin Tizzard superstars, Thistlecrack, Cue Card, Native River and then, more recently the highly promising staying youngster, Finians Oscar. There is a feel of a movement in the tectonic plates of top British NH racing here, with so much concentration of firepower in a yard that is as popular as it is professional. It is hardly grassroots racing, but I’m convinced that most owners and racegoers feel that this is a super trainer, without necessarily being a super-power yard full of the very richest owners in the land.
Christmas also demonstrated the enormous popularity of racing, particularly over jumps, with record crowds. Apparently over 204,000 racegoers turned out on Boxing Day, which was more than ever before. It would be mean-spirited to make any negative comments on the so-called “brilliant raceday experience”, which is how one of the Racecourse Association (RCA) officials described it, but there is still a real need to convert this racing enthusiasm into higher levels of attendance throughout the year. Apparently most racegoers only attend one, or possibly two maximum, race days per year and then only at their local track. If British racing could encourage them to attend just one more day, it would be one huge step forward in the economics of the sport – definitely a challenge for those who promote and market it.
Maintaining a high profile for the sport on terrestrial television has always been a tremendously important element in that marketing and promotion. People need to grow up with the sport and become enthusiastic when young, because it has been demonstrated that when this happens they tend to stay with racing throughout their lives. Certainly when I was a teenager I was an avid follower of BBC and Peter O’Sullevan, and also the pioneers of ITV such as John Oaksey and Brough Scott, and I can still remember the “pleasures” of losing money steadily every Saturday on the ITV-7. Indeed, the Little Oak in Chester was the pub I always went to, and last time I called in it hadn’t changed much over the years ….. although the TV was massively bigger. The switch from ITV to Channel 4 was a positive one in terms of the quality of presentation, but like the Little Oak it needed a fair bit of refurbishment after 32 years. Channel 4 Racing and the Morning Line had definitely become flat and stale (unlike the excellent hand-pumped beer in the Little Oak), and most racegoers and owners that I’ve spoken to were happy to see a change.
It wasn’t a propitious start, with the new ITV line-up committed to broadcast live from the winner’s enclosure at Cheltenham regardless of the drenching they received. The friendly and professional Ed Chamberlin appeared to cope manfully with everything, though apparently all his notes were destroyed in seconds, and his iPad gave up the ghost in the terrible weather. Oli Bell and Luke Harvey were well received, though unfortunately Matt Chapman confirmed the “Marmite” reaction that you either love him or loathe him. If you throw in A.P. McCoy, Mick Fitzgerald, Alice Plunkett and Richard Hoiles and (to be sexist for a moment) some eye-candy in Victoria Pendleton and the good-looking weather forecaster whose name I can’t remember, it seemed a decent team. The first edition of The Opening Show also seemed modern and professional, with some excellent features and a much lighter tone than the old Morning Line.
Unfortunately the overall reaction has been quite mixed, with the viewing figures on New Year’s Day being higher than previous years although not massively so, and The Opening Show, which goes out on ITV4, wasn’t especially popular. Personally I really hope that they can build up the numbers, and do so dramatically, as it really matters to the sport. It seems clear from the initial broadcasts that they have made a decision to pitch the commentary, tone and style of the shows at a much broader audience, rather than the die-hard enthusiasts and punters. That led quite a few to criticise them for “dumbing down” racing, although that seemed a bit harsh when set against the high quality of the production.
ITV has a four-year contract as racing’s exclusive terrestrial broadcaster, and we wish them well. We definitely need them, and high viewing figures, if terrestrial coverage is to be guaranteed into the future.