ITV Racing will broadcast five races from Thurles in Ireland on ITV4 on Saturday presented by its regular anchor Ed Chamberlin and using “the smallest possible team” at a studio in Britain to produce the programme.
The move follows the decision by Horse Racing Ireland to stage one race meeting each day from Friday, which is under daily review to ensure it does not impact on the Irish government’s strategy to deal with the impact of coronavirus. If the meeting goes ahead it is likely to attract maximum fields for nearly all seven races as it has attracted a huge total of 221 initial entries.
The feature event on the card is the Grade Three Pierce Molony Memorial Novice Chase, while a two-and-a-half hour programme starting at 1.30pm will also include a review of the Cheltenham Festival and the 2019-20 jumps season.
“There will be no [early morning] Opening Show,” a spokesperson for ITV Racing said, adding: “ITV Racing would like to thank Horse Racing Ireland and Racecourse Media Group for making this possible.”
The last sentence is a reminder that negotiations are continuing between ITV Racing and Racecourse Media Group, which handles the sale of British tracks’ media rights, over an extension to ITV’s four-year contract for terrestrial coverage of the sport that expires at the end of 2020.
As recently as last week, when senior figures from both sides met on the first day of the Cheltenham Festival, a final agreement on an extension seemed to be inching closer. Both within and without the racing industry, however, events have moved so rapidly it is difficult to see how any further progress can be made until at least a degree of confidence returns.
British racing decided to cancel all meetings until the end of April two days ago, following a move by the French authorities to suspend all racing until 16 April at the earliest, leaving Ireland as the only major racing nation in Europe still staging race meetings.
There is little optimism in the sport that racing will resume in early May, when the Guineas meeting at Newmarket would normally be swiftly followed by two more of the spring’s major events: the three-day May Festival at Chester and the three-day Dante meeting at York a week later.
Having lost the second of racing’s four big events when the Grand National meeting at Aintree was cancelled earlier this week, ITV Racing will already be concerned about the prospects for the Derby in early June and Royal Ascot just over a fortnight later.
The Derby in particular seems highly likely to be lost or at least postponed, as the open nature of the downland track – where around 100,000 people usually turn up to watch the Classic for free – would make it all but impossible to stage behind closed doors if, as seems certain, limits on public gatherings are still in place.
RMG acquired the right to show Irish racing on its subscription-based Racing TV digital channel from the start of 2019 and it is encouraging that a deal has been done to get live action from the only major sport still operating in Europe onto ITV4 this weekend.
ITV is a business and not a charity, however. When – or even if – negotiations resume about the next four-year contract, ITV is likely to be in a much stronger negotiating position than it was even a fortnight ago. RMG had the chance to sign a new deal more than a year ago but stalled. It is a decision that its member tracks may ultimately come to bitterly regret.