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It's been a very odd few months for everyone. In what seemed a blink of an eye our collective lives were turned upside down thanks to the coronavirus and for a few weeks it seemed that even thinking about reclaiming "normal life" was ridiculously farfetched.
The end of the lockdown is in sight now however, and everyone involved in Irish horse racing cannot wait for June 8th to roll around to enjoy the sport of kings once again. Sport isn't a matter of life and death obviously, but it offers respite from everything around us and at this turbulent period it will be a most welcome distraction.
The coronavirus might have stopped most of us in our tracks, but horse racing in Ireland may have stumbled upon a golden opportunity to engage the masses once again upon the news of enhanced coverage on RTÉ in June and July. Coverage of horse racing is fading in the UK & Ireland, so this is a good test to see if racing can pull in an audience when its front and centre on terrestrial TV.
We'll have live Irish racing Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings from 12 June https://t.co/wEctyxZN8a— RTÉ Racing (@RTEracing) May 26, 2020
Enhanced RTÉ Coverage
On Tuesday the superb news broke that Irish racing will return to much increased coverage on RTÉ with additional live meetings, and a brand new series of one-hour evening specials on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. The initial plan is to run this schedule until early July, but you'd hope with any level of success this may continue in some form beyond this.
This means that eight of the first twenty days of Irish Racing will be free to view on terrestrial tv. With Irish Racing generally behind a paywall on Racing TV, this is a massive opportunity for our sport to bring in a brand new audience starved of live sports to watch.
It was plain to see how much interest was generated in the Bundesliga due to it's relatively early return, as football fans tuned in to witness a live sport once again in all its glory.
Generally speaking mass interest in German football on these shores tends to be refined to the Champions League, but during a pandemic beggars cannot be choosers. Horse racing in Ireland has this opportunity now as well with it pretty much being the only show in town with a potential audience bereft of other options. The UK has a similar lack of live sport and there's no reason really as to why racing cannot fill ITV's schedule as well during this quiet period.
In recent years, horse racing has generally taken the approach of hiring music and entertainment acts to lure people to racecourses, and for the most part its been a welcome development, but this enhanced coverage is a unique litmus test for another approach to engage outsiders.
If this is done correctly these shows could show Ireland why horse racing is so enamouring. Live horse racing coverage can sometimes, through no fault of the presenters, be rather rushed due to tight schedules. A proper analysis based show which RTÉ will provide can educate people about the brilliantly intricate facets of what it can take to actually win a race. If these hour long specials were successful here, you'd hope ITV might look into something similar.
Horse racing can seem unapproachable to novices due to the unique phraseology used in the sport, so any chance to educate people is most welcome. Rather than changing our ways beyond recognition, the path forward should be making the relevant information more accessible and terrestrial TV is ideal for this.
I've always been a huge fan of RTÉ Racing, and in Hugh Cahill they have a brilliant host who will be complimented by the likes of the excellent Jane Mangan, Ruby Walsh and Ted Walsh for hour long specials. They can really get into a "Sky Sports" type analysis on why a jockey prevailed over another, while properly showing the audience why horse racing is such an exhilarating sport to follow.
The morning show on ITV is always very enjoyable, and an evening show analysing the day's events would also capture the imagination of a public who simply miss live sports to mull over. Here in Ireland, Off The Ball's Friday Night Racing on Newstalk has been a great addition for racing fans, and the more our sport can get to mass audiences like that can only be a help.
With GAA unlikely to return this summer, and the Olympics postponed, RTÉ has a gaping hole in its schedule that horse racing can grasp with both hands.
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A Well Needed Shot of Good PR
Let's face it, horse racing has had better periods when it comes to public relations. The perception of the sport continues to be an issue and it definitely didn't help that the general public collectively agreed that the coronavirus originated over four infamous days in Cheltenham.
I've no interest in getting into these debates, but this is a golden opportunity in Ireland to show that horse racing is worth persevering with, whilst educating the masses about how far racing has come over these last few years. We need more educational features so that the public can see for themselves that racing isn't anywhere near as barbaric as certain quarters would like you to believe.
Take the whip for example, the majority outside of racing don't know that this is brilliantly engineered to deliver a loud noise, but doesn't actually hurt the horse at all. The Guardian did a superb piece on this a few years ago, but generally that fact hasn't hit home with people outside the racing bubble at all.
Horse racing needs to show that it's not just a sport that deserves attention for four or five weeks a year, this is a riveting spectacle that is full of passion, commitment and emotive stories.
Enhanced coverage can show the intricate planning a trainer undertakes to land a big win, how much jockeys have to sacrifice to get to where they are (Keith Donoghue explained his struggle with weight on his Bookmakers blog last season) and the amazing work that goes on behind the scenes with stable staff who give everything so that the horse in their care can prosper.
If Horse racing can genuinely show itself in its best light and tell the nation what makes it so special, I have no doubt the general public would appreciate it as well.
A Golden Opportunity
We have a golden few weeks on RTÉ where racing will be the likely only live sport available and this is an opportunity not to be missed. I'm surprised as yet that ITV are not planning on taking a similar approach.
These next few weeks strike me as being a pilot for a television show hoping to get a few seasons commissioned. If our sport can get all it's ducks in a row and show horse racing in all it's glory I have no doubt it will prosper, but we need these few weeks to enthral a sports famished public.
RTÉ has lost international Rugby, doesn't have any Premier League fixtures for some time now and only get one Champions League match per round these days. Irish horse racing can be a long term scheduling solution, after all this is the only sport in Ireland that can honestly say they dominate proceedings worldwide on a regular basis.
Who would have thought two months ago that the coronavirus could end up offering horse racing a golden opportunity?
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