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Tony Keenan: Some Views on Garnering Viewers

My first memory of watching racing on TV is the 1991 Grand National. My father had backed the eventual runner-up, Garrison Savannah, but my puritan eight-year-old self was horrified at the thought of losing hard-earned money on horses jumping over things, writes Tony Keenan. My mother’s background as a banker and consequent financial rectitude played its part in that but dad was at pains to point out after his bet had finished second that he had backed him ‘each-way, the only way.’

I have no real recollection of racing on TV in years afterwards until the 2002 2,000 Guineas. For me, that will always be Hawk Wing’s Guineas regardless of who won, and the post-race discussion about whether or not he had been beaten on merit was fascinating. The complexity of pace, draw and race position - and their respective roles in the outcome - piqued my interest and when I found out you could bet on whose version of the race you believed I was hooked. So I followed Hawk Wing through that summer from the non-staying second in the Derby to the underwhelming Eclipse win to his defeat by Grandera at Leopardstown, a meeting I define as my first proper trip to the races and a losing one at that; I had not learned that ‘each-way was the only way’ though a starting price of 8/11 likely precluded against that bet in any case.

That initial race, covered at the time by Channel 4, was the start of something that is now an obsession. In the years since I’ve been down every rabbit hole of racing analysis imaginable, from trends to trainer patterns to pace to replays to sectional times. I’m just the sort of fan sports should aim for, committed to the game and willing to spend money and time, studying form, listening to podcasts, betting on horses and paying into racecourses. But that sort of consuming passion had to start somewhere and engaging the interest of embryonic fans is one of the many challenges that ITV Racing will face as the station starts its run as racing’s terrestrial broadcaster in 2017.

Racing can be an insecure tribe, constantly questioning its position in the broader sporting world, and this naval-gazing attitude has predictably emerged in the months leading into ITV’s return to covering the sport. We are comprised of so many different interests from owners to trainers to jockeys to breeders to punters and all have their own concerns about how the sport should be covered; just as everyone has an opinion on teachers, because everyone went to school, so too does everyone have a view on racing coverage as everyone watches it. I naturally tend towards the punters’ point-of-view who make up the majority of the TV audience but are often seen as a necessary evil by other parties.

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No matter what our agenda may be, it is important to remember that there is a more general audience out there beyond the racing bubble that has, at best, only a passing interest in the sport. They need to be recognised to some degree. There is part of me that would love ITV to simply cater to the racing nerd audience and the people I speak to about horses would likely support that view wholeheartedly; whether it would serve the broader health of the sport is another matter. Striking the balance between this general audience and the more hardened racing fan is another major challenge faced for those stations covering racing.

There are difficulties arising from the inherent nature of the sport itself. In contrast to something like football, racing tends to be made up of frenetic bursts of action that last a matter of minutes interspersed with longer periods of analysis and chat; this is the case for terrestrial stations at least that rarely cover more than two meetings on a given broadcast and thankfully prevents it from becoming mere betting shop fodder with one race blending into the next over a period of hours.

Then there are more the more generic challenges that any sports coverage faces in the current media climate. We are in an age where we can watch sport live via devices other than television and we are told that viewing figures may not be trustworthy as so many people are watching through other channels than the traditional coverage. Points like that are fair but genuine fans will, in the main, still want to want to watch the coverage live if at all possible; it is impossible to miss the result in the social media age and in any case watching a sporting event on your phone is a deeply unsatisfactory experience with streams tending to be herky-jerky and unreliable. Mainstream coverage remains important and, as James Willoughby pointed in an excellent article on the Thoroughbred Daily News website, deserves to be treated with seriousness.

It is hoped that ITV will bring this sort of seriousness to their coverage. Their position as a legacy station, the button on the remote that people reach for out of habit, should provide a boost in viewing figures above what the less mainstream Channel 4 could manage. The hiring of Ed Chamberlin as host was a significant acquisition and gives the sport a broader appeal; that the presenter has a background in the bookmaking industry and odds-compiling is even better. But there are areas that I hope will be addressed by the station, chief among them being the excessive reliance on ex-pros on the broadcast team.

The initial list of ITV presenters comprises a hefty dose of insiders; looking at their press release, we have Tony McCoy, Francesca Cumani, Mick Fitzgerald, Hayley Turner, Jason Weaver, Luke Harvey and Frankie Dettori. Regardless of one’s opinions on the merits or otherwise of the individuals on that list, it’s hard to get away from the belief that such people bring a certain tone to the coverage. While I acknowledge the need for some insiders, the concern is that too many of them leave the general audience ‘on the outside’ which in turn leads to them changing the channel. While station chiefs will argue that these people bring insight to the coverage it comes at a cost and that is excessive deference and a tendency to close ranks when one of their number are challenged; no one likes criticising their friends after all, even when they are clearly in the wrong.

There are many other voices out there in the racing world that could be used to bring fresh angles. One such is the official handicapper, Phil Smith, who has his share of critics but has proved to be brilliant TV on his occasional ‘Ask the Handicapper’ slot with Matt Chapman. There is something fascinating about a man who believes he is never wrong and Smith has never been afraid to voice strong opinions which Chapman excels in drawing from him; as an aside, Chapman should prove a fine addition to the ITV team.

Smith’s area of expertise is of course ratings and I wonder if they could be incorporated more into the broadcast; the modern sports fan loves nothing more than some numbers that help build informed content. All too often broadcasters fall into the trap of recency bias and get excited about the winner of a race that has just happened without placing it in its proper context. If we had a handicapper, official or otherwise, putting a number on that horse in the minutes after the race, provisional though it would have to be, would it not add to the quality of analysis? Not only would we be able to understand where the horse fits in with its peers but also, in the case of championship races, where it falls in the pantheon. There are plenty who bemoan the pointlessness of comparing horses across generations but one of racing’s great selling points is the depth of its history and this should be embraced.

All this brings me inevitably onto the role of data. There is much good work being done with the use of data to analyse racing, blowing many of the myths about the sport up in the process, but the problem in putting this onto the TV is presentation. Data like sectional times needs to be presented in a palatable way that the audience can understand and not sound like an Open University tutorial. Punters make up the bulk of the viewership and they want to know how the numbers can help them to back winners. In general, I think you need outsiders rather than racing insiders to cover this part of the broadcast; the insiders are often sceptical of the numbers, entrenched as they are in the traditional approaches of the sport. Furthermore, these outsiders seem more willing to criticise the participants in the sport, something that in the main is sorely lacking. This is not to say there should be criticism for criticism’s sake but I would love nothing more than a well-argued case that a jockey gave a horse a poor ride backed up by a sensible sectional timing-based argument or the critique of a trainer’s handling of a horse that is based in fact.

Finally, there is the most basic aspect of any sports broadcast: the live pictures of the events themselves. ITV Racing should not suffer from having the terrible angles that AtTheRaces present from some of the Irish tracks - like Punchestown, Leopardstown and Down Royal - where all too often we are given prolonged shots of the backsides of horses running away from the stands. Arty close-ups are a complete no-no and as far a possible the audience needs to see the whole field, preferably in high definition. Some punter, somewhere, has had a bet on a horse in that race, even the 999/1 rag on Betfair, and he wants to see his horse and understand what is happening.

- Tony Keenan

Follow Tony on Twitter at @racingtrends