At The Races (TV)
At The Races is a non subscription television channel completely dedicated to horse racing at home and abroad. The channel was first aired in 2002 and can be viewed on virtually all digital services, most notably Sky (channel 415) and Virgin (channel 534). The channel has built up a significant following since its first broadcast, thanks in part to its host of hugely experienced presenters and also to its impressive array of broadcast rights. At The Races currently holds live racing rights to all 27 Irish tracks and a further 30 tracks in the UK. Although these rights do not extend to some of the major events at the likes of Aintree and Epsom, they do still cover a fantastic range of meetings, including those at Ascot, Lingfield and Doncaster. If that wasn’t enough there is also live coverage of racing in the US, France, Dubai and Australia.
At The Races aims to be the racing channel for everybody, right through from the beginner to the horse enthusiast and of course the seasoned punter. It can certainly be commended for offering its programmes on a non-subscription basis and pledging to keep it that way. With so many pay per view channels starting to spring up, it makes a refreshing change to come across a broadcaster seemingly keen to look after the best interests of the average fan.
Ably assisted by its website which can be found here At The Races is a welcome addition to horse racing. It brings together some of the most recognisable figures in racing and provides high quality and much needed coverage of both major events and just as importantly for the sport, day to day racing.
Choice of Programmes
Having a single channel dedicated to any sport is always going to be a bit of a struggle due to the simple fact that live action doesn’t take place 24hrs a day. Thanks to At The Races range of broadcast rights, however, they cope surprisingly well. The only break in programmes comes between the hours of 6am and 9am and unlike some other sports channels, there are enough resources available to them to negate the need to load the schedule with re-runs of previous events. Indeed even on a Sunday the day’s schedule is filled with up to the minute news, views and updates alongside the plentiful live racing.
No programme really feels unnecessary with each having a specific use, be it previews, reviews, betting tips, live action or viewer interaction. The flagship programmes are of course the live action and include ‘Racing Live’ and ‘Evening Racing’, which are backed up by probably the channel’s strongest aspect: its review/preview programmes. These are where the presenters really get a chance to shine and some of the big personalities such as John McCririck can really inject some enthusiasm and, in McCririck’s case, extravagance to the coverage. The key programmes here are ‘Racing Today’, ‘The Sunday Forum’ and ‘The Irish Angle’ which provides the viewer with a fantastic insight into the Irish owners, trainers, runners and riders. With the Irish influence in horse racing growing ever larger this is an incredibly useful addition to a channel already high on insight.
Finally there are the more interactive programmes. As has already been said earlier on in this review, At The Races is a channel that prides itself on providing the sort of service that the average fan desires and its levels of viewer interactivity certainly don’t disappoint. Just about every programme in the schedule features regular emails and texts from viewers asking questions, offering tips or simply expressing their views on a certain topic. Further to this, there are also programmes either largely or completely led by the viewers. These include ‘Get On It!’, a great way of picking up tips from presenters and other viewers, as well as detailed coverage of all the major movers in the betting markets and exchanges, and special festival phone-ins. These tend to take place at the end of the day’s racing and give viewers the chance to ring in and share their experiences and views of the day, much as BBC Radio Five Live does for football with 606. These programmes are a really good way of rounding up the events of the day and at the time of writing are being regularly shown alongside the coverage of the Galway festival.
If there is one criticism of the choice of programmes it is that there seems to be a fairly rigid schedule and it varies very little from day to day and week to week. Although the content is obviously very different, this could easily lead to less hardcore racing fans growing a little bored and does suggest a slight lack of imagination amongst the producers, despite the high quality of the programmes they do put out.
When you go about putting together a channel of this variety the choice of presenters is absolutely crucial. If you don’t like the BBC’s racing presenters you can just avoid their racing coverage and watch other BBC programmes. However, if you don’t like the At The Races presenters, then you probably won’t watch the channel full stop. It is fortunate then that At The Races has some of the best presenters and commentators in racing. Much like a ‘Best Of…’ compilation does with a band or a solo artist, At The Races has pulled out all of the big guns, from Derek Thompson, their biggest and most likeable hit, to John McCririck the single that some loved and others hated.
Needless to say there is an absolute gold mine of experience shared by the men and women that front the show. Sean Boyce joined from Ladbrokes where he had many roles including spokesman and communications director. Gordon Brown and Matt Chapman have both spent a significant amount of time at the Racing Post. Dave Compton has been in racing since 1977, Richard Pitman is a well known former jump jockey and Alex Quinn used to compete regularly in show jumping as a junior.
Then of course there are the big two, Thompson and McCririck. Derek Thompson is one of the most recognisable figures in racing, having presented nine Grand Nationals for BBC Radio in addition to working for Channel 4 Racing since 1985. His presence is hugely important to the channel as it gives it a real air of authority and crucially, respectability. Alongside Thompson for many of the meetings is John McCririck. There is very little left to write or say about McCririck; I’ll just mention that his decision to join At The Races caused great controversy (you would expect no less!) as regards a conflict of interests with Channel 4 Racing and that despite his very outspoken, in your face style, he is still the only man you would want grilling the bookmakers. He may have been in racing for a long time now but he is still as passionate and, dare I say, entertaining as ever.
So there is much to praise about the channel’s presenters but perhaps the very best point, and particularly pertinent if you’re a football fan, is the sheer variety of presenter. You are not simply listening to a team of ex-pros but a team of ex-perts. What football fans would give for some of them, in place of Jamie Redknapp, Alan Shearer et al.
Key to this sort of channel’s chances of succeeding and indeed surviving is the quality of its live racing coverage. This is where it will get its highest viewing figures and is therefore the best time to win new viewers. It is also the time when At The Races is often in direct competition with the BBC and Channel 4’s coverage. The reality of the matter is that At The Races is always going to face a tremendous challenge in overtaking these two channels in terms of viewing figures but it can certainly compete in terms of quality.
At The Races tends to take a very informative and factual approach in this area, often letting the figures do the talking and saving their big name presenters for Saturday’s and the big weekday meetings. This is not necessarily a bad thing as the additional broadcast time available (no breaks for news, weather etc.) allows a more measured and statistic based approach. Certainly this is of benefit to any punters, who rather than struggling to keep up with the pace of Channel 4 or being swung by the BBC’s emotion-provoking montages, have the time and information to come to sensible and well informed decisions. This sort of approach can, however, result in a slight lack of energy or spark and it’s probably fair to say that if it’s not a Saturday or a particularly interesting meeting it’s fairly hard to ‘watch’ the entire programme as you would a football or tennis match. That’s not to say it wouldn’t still have huge appeal to a horse racing enthusiast; it would; it’s just that for a lot of us it will work better as a programme to have on in the background, to turn to whenever a horse or race of personal interest is being featured.
On the plus side, what it sometimes lacks in energy, At The Races certainly makes up for in breadth and depth of information. The range of racing (UK to Australia with various stops in between) is excellent and there is very little evidence of presenters being used to cover an aspect of racing that they know very little about – the majority of the US based racing for example is analysed and commentated on by Americans. The lack of any real time restraint also allows for handy little features on race specific terms and practices, such as equipping a horse with blinkers. These are excellent additions for anybody watching who is just starting to develop an interest in racing, although it should also be mentioned that a lot of these are shown late at night during the US and Australian racing and quite how many newcomers will be watching then is a matter up for debate.
On the whole though the channel does a lot of things well in its live racing coverage and is certainly a useful addition to the more traditional programmes. The commentary is generally good and, if you get the right combination of presenters and races, the action can be just as entertaining as any celebrity laden festival covered by the BBC. The channel should also be commended for catering for fans with greatly differing levels of knowledge and when considering the downsides, particularly the general lack of polish and low thrills pre-race build up, one should take into account the fact that this is a channel that has to somehow fill twenty one hours a day, seven days a week, with nothing but horse racing.
The two key points to consider when reviewing this sort of channel are: ‘Is it a good alternative to coverage that is currently being offered?’ and ‘Is the content worthy of taking up a whole channel?’ With At The Races the answer to both questions is a resounding yes.
When compared to its two main rivals, BBC1 and Channel 4, At The Races does surprisingly well, especially when considering how long its rivals have been on air for. The range of coverage is fantastic, the presenters are a credit to racing and the content is of an extremely high quality. In addition to these positives it also works extremely well alongside the website. It is this sort of adaptability and convergence that is becoming increasingly important in this age of multi-media and is another area At The Races excels in. The coverage can be very raw and the regular short spells of silence, evident when there is only one presenter working, can be a little alienating for the younger generation of horse racing fans and those more used to terrestrial coverage. However, it is still without doubt a very relevant and viable alternative: invaluable for enthusiasts and informative for newcomers.
As for whether horse racing warrants an entire channel to itself, that is perhaps a more controversial subject. It has become a bit of a cliché that there are hundreds of channels on television nowadays but nothing to watch and convincing substantial numbers of viewers to tune into a channel this specific, for a fee or otherwise, is never going to be easy. You can’t help but feel, however, that a special case should be made for horse racing. The fact of the matter is that horse racing is a major sport with thousands of events a year, far more than any terrestrial channel could even dream of covering. At The Races fills a large gap and does it well, offering a viable alternative to more traditional coverage in the process. For an even more telling argument just take a look at the channel listings on Sky; at the last count there were eight channels dedicated to an individual football club. If horse racing doesn’t warrant at least one then Thompson, McCririck and Co may as well call it a day.