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Paying Channel 4 has left TV racing utterly devalued 17/03/2009
Greg Wood

It is not often that you are asked to sign a petition in your local betting shop – indeed, a desire to escape from the troubles of the outside world is often a prime motivation for opening the door in the first place. At present, though, several betting chains are collecting signatures as part of a Racing Post campaign against the BBC's decision to slash its racing coverage by half to just 14 days in 2010.

The Corporation's move, finally confirmed late last week, had been widely trailed for many months. A petition against the decision now appears as pointless as the entire campaign, given that it was probably a done deal as long as six months ago.

What all the breast-beating seems to demonstrate as much as anything, though, is racing's enduring ability to turn a setback into – in its perception, at least – a full-scale disaster. Attempts to cast the BBC as the baddie, meanwhile, suggest collective amnesia when it comes to the recent history of racing on terrestrial TV.

When, in June 2005, the sport effectively agreed to pay Channel 4 to televise racing, everyone was delighted. John McCririck, normally a man who is viscerally opposed to subsidies, threw a garden party to celebrate. And why not? The style of Channel 4's coverage may be locked in the 1970s, but it offers a reliable weekly fix for punters with no access to digital TV.

But there was always going to be a price to pay once the accepted way of doing things had been turned on its head. The agreement made to stump up the cash for coverage of racing on Channel 4 instantly devalued everything else. Events with the prestige of the Derby, Royal Ascot and the Grand National could take the hit, and were still worth paying for. The rest, by and large, were not.

On that basis, and when set against the fears of four years ago that the sport might all but vanish from terrestrial TV, the prospect of 85 or so days on Channel 4 and most of the really outstanding stuff on the BBC looks like as fair a deal as anyone could realistically hope for.

So why is it greeted like a calamity? Every sport bar football would sell its soul for the kind of coverage that racing receives, both on terrestrial and digital platforms. Sometimes you wonder whether the racing nation has an inbred, collective need to feel miserable and threatened.

It is one explanation, perhaps, for how it was that a 2½-minute report on the BBC last week ever managed to reach the airwaves. Fronted by Mihir Bose, the Corporation's sports editor, it was such a one-eyed, agenda-driven piece of journalism that its natural home was Fox News. Instead, it was on the main evening bulletin. Racing, according to Bose, is "a sport that knows it's in turmoil". The reason? "The traditional racing public is ageing and in particular, the unfocused Flat season lacks a narrative to attract new punters." This supposition was presented as fact.

But it was the talk of "lack of narrative" that really gave the game away, given that is a pet phrase of senior executives at the British Horseracing Authority and elsewhere. In these circles, there is still enthusiasm for the much-maligned Sovereign Series, a plan to link top races as a package for sale to the highest bidder.

The idea is a non-starter for any number of reasons, but in any case it overlooks the fact that there is a story to the season already, as three-year-olds emerge for Classic trials, compete in the Guineas and Derby, and then go on to take on older horses and contest the end-of-season championships. Alongside those championship events, the two-year-olds are also sorting themselves, ready to begin the whole story again.

And the thread that leads from one chapter to the next is betting. Trial winners get quotes for the Classics, Guineas winners get quotes for the Derby, Derby winners for the King George, Arc and Breeders' Cup.

Yet still the fundamental link between racing and betting is one that the current BHA hierarchy is reluctant to even acknowledge, never mind exploit. Now that really is a problem worth discussing.