Sunday Racing On TV?

Racing For Change (RfC) has been like the curates egg, good in places.

Some of their simpler ideas have been the best, being of a certain age and with my eyesight not as good as it used to be I love the larger saddlecloths. I’m not so sure about the US style coloured saddlecloths as adopted initially at Kempton but also recently making an appearance at Carlisle. There are one of those initiatives which need to be universally adopted or not used at all, otherwise people will not become accustomed to them.

I loved their free admission initiative last year, which seemed to be well received by most of the courses and racegoers, although it is not a model which will work everywhere. So why has it not been followed up? I understand there is another series planned again this year but a whole year before following it up!!

I also give 2½ cheers to Champions Day. A good concept in principle and moving the meeting from Newmarket to Ascot is an excellent idea. However I do have serious reservations about the impact it may have on the existing “unofficial” Champions Day already held at Longchamp the first Sunday in October, my favourite single days flat racing of the year.

Of course RFC have had some turkeys. The experiment with decimal odds (of which I am an absolute fan by the way) at Ascot was half baked and doomed to fail and probably ended up doing the cause more harm than good.

The launch of the RfC  initiative did little to engender hope, with the creation of these mythical racegoers they were trying to attract . . .  oh dear what a PR disaster that was.
I also have doubts about the current fixation of attempting to attract students to the races but will reserve judgment on that one.

RfC are also about to look at getting improved radio coverage for the sport, no bad thing and they could do a great deal worse than trying to get the morning racing bulletin re-instated of Radio Football, aka Five Live . . . . now that would be the ultimate test of their ability.

So all in all RfC has probably done OK, although it has often fallen into the typical marketing trap of perhaps being too blue sky and too disconnected on occasion.

One area I am surprised RfC has not looked at more closely is Sunday racing.

Sunday 26th July 1992 was a memorable day as it saw the first ever Sunday meeting in this country. It was no ordinary race meeting though as the puritanical rules in force those days did not allow betting on a Sunday – how quaint.

Savoyard, ridden by Walter Swinburn and trained by Michael Jarvis was the first horse to win an officially sanctioned Sunday race under rules in the United Kingdom.

There were howls of objections from various quarters. From trainers and stable staff protesting about having to work an extra day, through to the predictable objections on religious grounds.

The religious objections always made me smile as both Ireland and France, staunch Catholic states, far more religious than Britain, had raced on Sunday’s for years without any apparent conflict of interest.     

It needed a change of legislation to allow Sunday betting and on 7th May 1995 Newmarket hosted the first Sunday meeting with betting where Peace Envoy was the 11/4 winner of the opening race, trained by Henry Cecil and ridden by Willie Ryan.

In those early days Sunday meetings were haphazard affairs, almost a random occurrence.

Now there is racing every Sunday of the year (apart from Christmas Day) and the only course not to have so far raced on a Sunday is Cartmel, although Epsom have not raced on a Sunday since 1998.

The trouble with Sunday racing is it is generally low quality fare on offer. Yes there are exceptions, the 1,000 Guineas is run on a Sunday and there are a spattering of top races throughout the year.

However Sunday racing is not being used to its full potential.

When top class races are staged on a Sunday the attendance figures hold up exceptionally well and even with the generally sub-standard racing Sunday’s often give courses higher attendances than average.

If the standard of racing was increased the effect on attendances will be even more marked boosting income for the courses and, should it remain in place, increased Levy income as well.

Of course there will be objectors.

The “God squad” will complain about racing on a Sunday. As stated earlier it does not seem to be an issue in places like Ireland, France or Malta where church going and religious adherence  is far stronger than in the UK.  At the end of the day if practicing Christians do not wish to go racing on a Sunday nobody is forcing them to attend and, conversely, why should non-Christians be denied their pleasures because it offends some?

There may be some trainers who do not wish to run horses on a Sunday for religious reasons, that is their prerogative. If that causes a problem for their owners then the owner can either accept the trainers position or they can send their horses to be trained elsewhere.  

Then there is the issue of hours of work for stable staff. With racing already taking place on a Sunday this is arguably a less valid argument now, however I appreciate it does add to the already long hours stable staff work.

I see two possible solutions to this one.

Firstly I would have no great issue with Monday (except where there is a Bank Holiday) being a blank racing day. Now I appreciate the bookmakers, who some may suggest are the de facto controllers of racing, may not be too keen on a blank day.       

In which case the second option may appeal more, again where the Monday is not a Bank Holiday.

If the Sunday meetings are framed to have no more than three meetings but with the racing of a higher quality, as per the Saturday structure, then Monday cards could consist of low grade fixtures.

That way, generally, the bigger trainers would have runners at the Sunday meeting but be far less likely to have runners at the Monday meeting and the trainers of the runners at the low grade Monday meetings would be less likely to have runners on the Sunday.   So giving each set a free day.   OK it is a simplistic viewpoint and I realise some trainers would fall in both camps but no system is perfect.

I would have no objection to the major festivals being moved to include Sunday’s . . .  it has worked with Newmarket’s Guineas meeting.

So why not have a Thursday – Sunday Cheltenham Festival, or a Saturday / Sunday Derby meeting.

Of course some will say we can’t, it’s tradition. “Tradition” is no excuse. Despite the proven economic benefits there are still those who yearn for The Derby to return to its “traditional” Wednesday spot. Perhaps they are the same people who want to see a return to pounds, shillings and pence. Or to women being denied the vote, or only landowners being allowed to vote or children being sent up chimneys . . . . after all weren’t all those “tradition” at some point?

The changes would have to be handled carefully though. For example initially I would still envisage the Derby being run on the Saturday with The Oaks and Coronation Cup being run on the Sunday. However over time as it become accepted that Sunday was the day for big races then I would see no reason why it could not be switched so The Derby is run on the Sunday.

Some would argue for Sunday racing to be a success it would also need terrestrial television coverage.

If that is a valid argument then it need not be a major stumbling block. Traditionally terrestrial television coverage has, over the years, been a choice between BBC, ITV and Channel Four with just a limited number of channels.

By next year the whole country will have switched to digital, giving far more channels on terrestrial television.

If terrestrial coverage is considered to be so vital then with the extra capacity it should be simple enough for one of the existing terrestrial broadcasters to find a channel to broadcast Sunday afternoon racing..

The BBC, for example could use the BBC3 or BBC4 channels, currently not used in the afternoons. Similarly with four channels available whet is to stop ITV returning to broadcasting racing?

Or, what is to stop a new terrestrial broadcaster stepping in? Even with its current funding model, why couldn’t ATR broadcast on a free to air terrestrial digital channel?   Granted it would be more difficult for RUK with their subscription model.

Of course, once digital switchover is complete, will terrestrial coverage of the sport be as important?

Instead of the current four or five channels, all households will have access to up to 50 terrestrial TV channels, with that competition how much of an audience will racing get and consequently would the value of terrestrial cover not diminish for sponsors?

How would new viewers be attracted to the sport?

This brings us neatly full circle as the future of terrestrial television coverage of the sport is something RfC are going to have to look at very seriously.

Finally congratulations to Richard and Sarah Hoiles on the birth of their second son, Thomas, last Tuesday morning . . . . just 3½ hours too late to be a Valentines baby.


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