Natives of the British Isles love talking about the weather. It makes sense when you think about how changeable conditions can be in Great Britain and Ireland and how much of an impact it has on so many different aspects of life.
The weather is certainly a major factor and discussion point in the world of horseracing. When conditions take a turn for the worse, race meetings can pay the price by being abandoned. That causes a whole host of problems including for broadcasters. But what happens when a race meeting is abandoned and how do broadcasters choose which races to show live?
How Are Televised Races Selected?
It is possible to watch every single live race from Britain and Ireland on TV. Two broadcasters – Sky Sports Racing and Racing TV – split the coverage but both channels require subscriptions. Of course, live streaming is also a great option and is offered by most of the best horseracing bookies. Sometimes you need to have made a bet on the race but with other bookies you can often view simply by having funds in your account. The only way to watch racing for free on terrestrial television is via ITV Racing who broadcast on ITV4 and sometimes on the main ITV channel for the biggest races.
As the sole terrestrial broadcaster of horse racing in the UK, ITV Racing has a vital role to play in the health of the sport. Therefore, it is important they choose the right races to broadcast across what can stretch to 100 days of live action each year.
A fair chunk of the ITV Racing schedule is made up of the biggest meetings of the year both on the Flat and in National Hunt racing. The British Horseracing Authority (BHA) makes this job easy for the schedulers by defining their major events. These include the biggest meetings such as the Cheltenham Festival and Royal Ascot and the most prestigious races like the Grand National and the five Classics. A number of these take place during the week, whilst others, such as the King George VI Chase, take place on a fixed occasion but changeable date (in the case of the King George, Boxing Day).
The rest of the ITV Racing schedule is made up of their Saturday racing programme. The best action of the week tends to be on Saturday and picking which card to show is ultimately an editorial decision taken to ensure the best possible racing is broadcast. A combination of the grade and competitiveness of the races, the prize money available and the presence of big stars goes into the decision making process.
There are some other considerations to ponder, such as whether a race is a trial for a big upcoming contest covered by ITV Racing and if there is a popular narrative such as a jockey on a hot streak or a horse’s return from injury. More often than not it is a straightforward decision as to which cards and which races are among the seven or eight shown by ITV Racing.
In very rare circumstances plans can change, pun intended, on the hoof. This is extremely rare but, for example, when Frankie Dettori landed his Magnificent Seven, Grandstand was interrupted in order to broadcast additional races, the TV controllers sensing history was about to be made.
What Happens if a Televised Race is Abandoned?
As all horseracing fans know, it is not a sport in which things always go to plan. Among the almost incalculable number of variables in the sport is the weather. Differences in the weather conditions can have a major impact on the way a race pans out and sometimes it can cause a contest to be postponed, abandoned, or even spell the end of an entire day’s racing.
Despite the often herculean efforts of ground staff at race tracks, the weather will sometimes be too severe and the underfoot conditions are deemed unsuitable or unsafe for racing. The weather does not discriminate between different meetings so the day’s scheduled live meetings sometimes fall foul of conditions.
Given the importance of the weather to racing, a lot of time, money and effort goes into producing long range weather forecasts. Clearly, the longer out the forecasts, the less accurate they are but the BHA, broadcasters and others involved in racing will usually have a fair idea of which meetings are under threat of being abandoned some way ahead of time.
This was the case when Newbury’s Super Saturday card was abandoned in February 2021. Clerk of the course, Keith Ottesen, told ITV Racing’s Ed Chamberlain that a contingency plan was put into place as early as possible to reschedule the whole card for the following Sunday. As temperatures remained below freezing in the days leading up to the meeting it was no shock when the call was made that the track was frozen, it was unsafe to race and the card had to be abandoned.
As the terrestrial broadcaster, ITV had been involved in those early discussions and they quickly worked out a way to show the rescheduled card. The ITV Racing team also had contingencies in place for their coverage with the all weather cards at Chelmsford and Lingfield as the backup. As it turned out, Chelmsford was abandoned as well requiring a rather swifter call to be made to cover the jumps racing from Naas in Ireland.
This sort of nimble decision making is made possible because ITV has the rights to show racing from across the UK and Ireland. That is not the case with Sky Sports Racing and Racing TV who have signed broadcast rights with individual courses in Britain while all Irish racing is broadcast in Britain by Racing TV. When one of their scheduled cards are abandoned, Sky Sports Racing and Racing TV have no choice but to fill their air time with coverage of whatever racing is going ahead that they have the rights to. Alternatively they can use other programming such as replays, analysis or stock interviews.
The ground staff at every racecourse works as hard as they can to mitigate against the effects of the weather and get racing on safely. The meetings which host the most prestigious and important races tend to have bigger budgets and can throw more resources at problematic underfoot conditions so bigger meetings do have a slightly better chance of avoiding abandonment. However, there is only so much that can be done after a long spell of wet weather or when temperatures are at either extreme. If the worst happens, rest assured that behind the TV scenes frantic work is taking place to at least give us some live action to savour!