Anger and concern as ATR loses Irish coverage to RUK from next year
Racing fans and professionals reacted with anger and concern on Friday following the shock revelation that Irish coverage of the sport will sensationally switch to Racing UK from At The Races at the start of 2019.
The bombshell development creates massive uncertainty for the profile of the sport in Ireland and reduces the At The Races stable of Irish and British courses by more than half in one fell swoop.
The removal of the 26 Irish tracks leaves it with just 23 British courses from which to broadcast.
It was reported in Friday’s Racing Post that ATR is in the mix to win back the rights to provide pictures from Ascot, and it is also understood to be bidding for other tracks.
However, it faces a precarious future now. Its Irish racing product, which includes the right to broadcast all the major festivals at the likes of the Curragh, Leopardstown, Punchestown, Fairyhouse and Galway on satellite television, has been its unique selling point in recent years.
It was a mutually beneficial arrangement, as Irish racing was front and centre on ATR, which provided it with a platform that, at this point in time, it seems unlikely RUK, which does offer the prospect of HD pictures for Irish racing, will be able to provide. Whereas ATR is available as part of the basic Sky Sports package, RUK is a subscription channel.
From next January, Irish tracks will have to vie for attention with such as Cheltenham, Aintree and Ascot on RUK, so the move has prompted massive uncertainty for those with an interest in Irish racing.
Those involved in finalising the new deal would not comment while the process is ongoing, but social media erupted when the news broke. Much of the commentary sounded a concerned tone, and in an online Racing Post poll 86 per cent of voters indicated it was a negative development.
“This is an end of an era with the @AtTheRaces losing Irish racing,” trainer Ger Lyons said of the move on Twitter. “Interesting times ahead, RUK have big shoes to fill. HD pictures are the only immediate improvements I can think of as losing the likes of Gary O'Brien is surely a negative.”
Lyons’ fellow handler Eddie Linehan said on the same platform: “Surely bad for Irish racing, it will become pay per view, viewing figures will be less than they are now currently.”
Another handler, Robbie McNamara, was critical of Horse Racing Ireland’s role in the process. He tweeted: “Can't see the benefit to this other than to the pockets of HRI. Dragging Irish racing further and further away from the general public.”
The new arrangement is still to be ratified, and the Association of Irish Racecourses (AIR) has the capacity to veto the move.
On Tuesday, the board of AIR is due to convene to discuss the matter, but it is understood that the prospect of it exercising its right to veto is so slim as to be non-existent.
Gigginstown Stud’s Eddie O’Leary also questioned the role of the authorities.
“I am absolutely shocked. It looks like this AIR meeting on Tuesday is too late,” he told the Racing Post. “It sounds like ATR didn’t even have a chance, but surely we should have some say over the pictures for the future of our sport.
“I hope we’re not sleepwalking into oblivion. How this has occurred without anybody knowing and it’s a done deal is amazing. Our opposition effectively have the pictures now, which is not good for competition, and media rights revenue could plummet. How the authorities have allowed this to happen is unbelievable.”
SIS holds sole and exclusive rights to broadcast racing from every Irish racecourse, having in March 2016 agreed a five-year deal with the Association of Irish Racecourses (AIR) – via an HRI media rights committee – that extends the arrangement until the end of 2023.
At the time it was made clear that ATR would not be guaranteed to be providing the pictures when the new deal kicks in, so AIR must effectively accept the situation now, as SIS retained the right to renegotiate the provider.
Given the revelation in recent days that the Racecourse Media Group (RMG), which controls RUK, has effectively marginalised ATR by aligning itself with SIS in breaking away from the GBI Racing collective-bargaining facility that enabled them to distribute Irish and British racing to overseas betting operators, it seems ATR’s negotiating position had become extremely weak.
RMG has now agreed a deal with SIS to succeed At The Races when the current arrangement expires at the end of this year, adding to the turbulence that prevails as a result of its row with Arena Racing Company (Arc), Britain’s other major racecourse group. All 16 of Arc’s racecourses are on ATR and David Thorpe, chairman of Arc, has accused RMG of “fracturing British racing”.
In a more positive development, the state broadcaster RTE has revealed it has agreed a new three-year deal to continue broadcasting up to 27 of Irish racing’s showpiece fixtures on terrestrial television.
If you are interested in this, you might also like:
Members can read the latest exclusive interviews, news analysis and comment available from 6pm daily on racingpost.com