Brian O'Connor's Latest Blog

Brian O'Connor's Latest Blog

The Brakes Are Gone

Mon 5th Feb 2018, 09:19

Samcro and Jack Kennedy easily win the Deloitte Novice Hurdle
©Healy Racing Photos
Horse Racing Ireland's purpose is the governance, development and promotion of the industry. The Association of Irish Racecourses states its role is to promote the sport of horse racing generally and the specific interests of those who own or operate racecourses. So each overtly acknowledges its role in maintaining and increasing racing's profile. Yet there is widespread apprehension the new deal which sees pictures broadcast on 'Racing UK' from next year will have an adverse impact on Irish racing's exposure levels. And what's more there's little or nothing can be done about it.

That's the real big picture story: how HRI's Media Rights Committee, which manages media rights for racecourses, signed a deal in 2016 that basically handed over control of Irish racing's prized asset to SIS. Technically an AIR general meeting on Tuesday can veto the SIS decision to go with RUK rather than 'Attheraces' from 2019. Most everyone agrees though that's little more than a rubber-stamp exercise. SIS paid for the right to do what it likes with these pictures and is doing so. Those in charge of Irish racing are incapable of applying any kind of brake.

Details are vague on how much better off racecourses will be from the RUK deal but apparently it's not much. It's the original rights deal that's the financial beano. That's the thing with a straightforward tot: as Jerry Maguire outlined its show me the money. In contrast profile is vague and imprecise. But it does matter. In fact it might be argued it matters enough to get the money train all revved up in the first place. And there's no knowing yet what kind of long term impact on Irish racing's public depiction will occur from one short-term deal that fattens the racecourses.

Having to pay a secondary fee to subscribe to RUK rather than coughing up for a standard package that provides free ATR will deter some. There's certainly a touch of elitism to this. But it's not the major problem. Apparently ATR's rebrand to Sky Racing included plans to go behind a pay-wall too. Anyway there are punters out there loudly proclaiming how they won't pay €400 a year for RUK yet think nothing of having the same on a horse any day. It's part of the grand old racing tradition of paying nothing but expecting everything.

What's of real concern is the quality of coverage Irish racing gets on RUK. The huge plus of ATR is that Ireland is the big dog. That means it gets both time and priority. It also gets resources. There are boots on the editorial ground which helps provide a level of everyday coverage it's hard to imagine RUK can emulate on a much busier schedule. Will every Irish race be shown live? I have heard a suggestion that over five per cent won't be. Will some meetings be parked behind a button? Will it just be pictures alone with no time for interviews, analysis and background?

Maybe RUK's coverage will be a huge improvement and such concerns will be academic. Details are non-existent at the moment bar suggestions RUK will be rebranded to reflect its new acquisition. Anyway RUK and SIS are hardly to be blamed for doing whatever they like with a product they've paid for. They're in the business of totting profits.

But HRI and AIR are supposed to have a wider brief. These are promotional questions that should be of major importance to them. The idea is to sell racing to as wide an audience as possible. Except by grabbing the original 2016 SIS deal so enthusiastically they appear to have forfeited any kind of leverage.

Anyone who owns even a mundane apartment and decides to rent it out for period wouldn't just allow a renter to sub-lease it at their leisure. There would have to be at least some consultation. And it should hardly be beyond anyone's business wit to insert clauses which allow the actual owner exert some say or influence on what remains their property.

Such brakes seem entirely absent from a deal which appears to allow SIS do whatever it wants. And if that wasn't attractive enough for them, they even get to deliver a competitor a potentially devastating commercial blow with the potential to put them in an even stronger position next time everyone sits around the negotiating table. It's hard to play tough without an 'or else.'

The financial importance of media rights is huge. Dermot Cantillon's recent observation that 80 per cent of Naas racecourse's revenue comes from media rights was no surprise to anyone. But administration is not just about money. Racecourses may feel they are looking out for themselves but they're part of a bigger picture here. It's certainly a picture HRI should appreciate. It has a responsibility to take an overall view for the overall good of the industry.

But here it seems to have had eyes only to cut a deal with SIS which pays off in money terms but otherwise has the potential to backfire. No doubt there are a lot of fingers being kept crossed this works out. And it may pay off. But when it comes to valuable contracts, keeping fingers crossed is hardly good enough. And it surely isn't good enough to sign over a valuable asset without retaining some sort of brake to preserve an industry's overall interests.

ATR might not have been offering as much money but it offers levels of profile RUK may not. In terms of boosting a sport's exposure it is currently pretty much a win-win on both sides. It seems Irish racing has signed that away and is left without any say in the matter.

As for the 'Dublin Racing Festival' it turned out to be a bit of a curate's egg in terms of attendances. 14,105 for Saturday was encouraging and above expectations: so Sunday's crowd of 12,031 was a let-down considering it was generally anticipated to be the bigger draw.

And as an aside it's worth pointing out that Saturday's positive crowd figure was rushed up to us in the press room before racing had even finished. There was no similar sprint with Sunday's figure, which tells its own little story as to how relevant crowd figures are to some people at least.

As for what story the festival tells us generally about attendances, the figures suggest it might be worth re-examining the tired trope about Saturday racing being a dead-duck in terms of popular interest. Is the prospect of going to good racing - and giving it a bit of welly on the social front without worrying about work the following day - a lot more attractive to people than generally assumed?

And although plenty encouragement was taken from the Day One figure there's no getting away from how an attendance of 26,136 over two days for the best National Hunt racing this country can throw up is disappointing. Because, by the way, the racing was superb. It doesn't get better. A couple of thousand more than originally predicted showed up to watch it. But anyone pretending this was near full-house stuff is just cheerleading.

One final festival thought is that part of its brief is to promote racing. Yet in the Sunday Independent sports supplement there wasn't a single word about Saturday's Leopardstown action. That's nothing, nada, niente, nichts, which in any language is remarkable.

There was a brief bit of copy about Ruby Walsh and even a snippet on Buveur d'Air winning at Sandown. But nothing at all about one of the biggest days on the Irish racing calendar. The Sindo isn't everyone's cup of tea. And referring to a print edition may be hopelessly old-school media. But such an omission is a stark reminder of how profile of any kind isn't guaranteed.

As for a final, final festival thought; wasn't Samcro fantastic. If he's really only going to come into his own over three miles and fences, we could be looking at something very exceptional indeed.

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