Chester and Bangor to join ambitious 'game changer' Sky Sports Racing
The team behind Sky Sports Racing, the new name for At The Races (ATR) from the start of next year, said on Monday the new-look channel would be a "game changer" and that they would be happy to talk to any racecourse who wishes to join them.
Top of that list is Ascot, with ATR chief executive Matthew Imi confirming they were bidding to tempt the course away from Racing UK.
Already joining the channel from Racing UK are Chester and Bangor, whose chief executive Richard Thomas said they would receive much more exposure from being on the Sky Sports platform.
News of the rebrand had been expected since Sky purchased some of partner Arena Racing Company's shares in ATR to take a majority stake in the channel.
The addition of Chester and Bangor is a much-needed boost for Sky following the shock news that all 26 Irish racecourses plus Chelmsford City are to switch from ATR to RUK from January 1.
However, the channel is hoping to add more courses to the 24 in the current portfolio, and Imi said: "We are very happy to talk through our plans with any UK racecourse as we believe we have a considerable amount to offer the sport.
"Regarding Ascot, it is a matter of public record that they are currently conducting a tender process for various categories of rights. It is no secret that Sky Sports Racing is a participant in that process."
Ascot did not wish to comment other than to say the rights process launched earlier this year is ongoing.
Sky Sports Racing, which will be available to every Sky TV customer in the UK and Ireland at no extra cost, will be available in HD for the first time and produced from Sky's studios in west London.
Imi added: "There is no better home for our new channel production facility than Sky Sports’ studios, which are the best in the business, and we believe Sky Sports Racing is set to be a game changer for racing.
"Later this year we look forward to presenting our plans in more detail to the major constituents in our sport and racing fans more generally."
He would not be drawn on whether this meant Sky would again be bidding for racing mainstream 'terrestrial' rights, currently held by ITV until the end of 2020.
The channel will join the other dedicated sports channels Sky launched last summer.
Sky Sports managing director Barney Francis said: "We’ve seen a great reaction from our customers to launching dedicated sports channels and this takes us to another level.
"Horseracing is a massive sport that Sky has been involved in for two decades and now we will have a channel to give our customers more of what they love every day.
"Adding Chester and Bangor-on-Dee is fantastic news and we look forward to making Sky Sports Racing a new home for racing fans."
The Chester Race Company, which runs Chester and Bangor, has signed a ten-year deal with Sky Sports Racing.
Chief executive Richard Thomas said the decision to switch had been a hard one as they had been a founder member of Racing UK's parent company Racecourse Media Group.
He added: "I think it stems back to that we're a racecourse that generally clashes with other big racecourses on a Saturday.
"We are never first or sometimes even second choice on a Saturday, so we miss out on quite a lot of the terrestrial coverage.
"The key for us is to get our customers here racing and through the Sky platform, particularly though its cross-promotion with Sky Sports News and the other channels, we felt we could get to our racegoers and get them to come racing.
"While the RMG product works very well for all of our committed racegoers, professionals and industry people who watch it, our customers are generally not seeing Racing UK, so we felt that through the Sky Sports platform we would get much more exposure and much more kudos."
Imi would not comment about the team who will present on the channel, but Thomas said he believed there would be crossover from other Sky Sports channels, pointing out the benefits of cross-promotion with football "which is huge in the north west".
Comment: will Sky make Ascot an offer it can't refuse?
The first shots in the battle to win racing's mainstream rights after ITV's four-year deal finishes at the end of 2020 may have been heard on Monday.
News of the relaunch of At The Races (ATR) as Sky Sports Racing has been expected for a while, ever since it was revealed that Sky had taken a majority share in the channel.
Rumours had also been circulating that Chester and Bangor were looking to switch from their old home of Racing UK, and their addition to the channel is a boost after the shock news that Ireland's 26 courses were to switch the other way from next year.
But what Monday's announcement, timed just after the end of ATR's final broadcast of the Punchestown festival, may well signify is Sky's intentions for a few years down the line.
Sky was certainly considered in the last round of terrestrial rights talks – Jockey Club group chief executive Simon Bazalgette said at the time they had made an interesting offer – and it would seem they have not been put off by missing out.
And when the package being offered to prospective broadcasters is put together, will Sky take the likes of Chester, Doncaster and Chepstow off the table?
The other big question is what Ascot is going to do. A couple of months ago they invited offers for a number of media and betting rights, pay TV among them.
That process is ongoing but you would imagine Sky is trying to make Ascot an offer it can't refuse.
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