Conor O’Neill, general manager of Punchestown racecourse and also chairman of Horse Racing Ireland’s media rights committee, on Sunday admitted to being “very disappointed” that the John Durkan Memorial Chase at Punchestown on Sunday was broadcast on a split screen with no commentary in the early stages.
Following Irish racing’s switch to Racing TV after Racecourse Media Group acquired the rights from SIS in a deal that began on January 1, split-screen coverage is an issue that has become exacerbated due to the volume of tracks now on RTV’s roster.
Given that Irish racecourses are budgeting for a ten per cent drop in media rights revenue for 2020 due to weak sterling and the closure of around 2,300 betting shops in Britain after a reduction in maximum FOBT stakes, the manner in which even elite Irish races are treated as second-class contests alongside lesser-quality British races on RTV has done nothing to defuse frustration at the situation.
The split-screen problem was evident on Saturday, when races at Navan shared the screen at different times with events at Aintree and Wetherby, and viewers’ simmering anger was palpable on social media on Sunday, when Punchestown’s Grade 1 and the Peterborough Chase had to share the screen, with no commentary audible for the Irish race save for the final 40 seconds.
The scheduled off times for the first three Punchestown races were delayed by two minutes at the request of SIS. When Davy Russell was taken ill shortly before the third race after weighing out, his replacement Jack Kennedy had to weigh out afresh, meaning the subsequent feature event eventually went off 11 minutes late at 2.01pm, 18 seconds after the Peterborough started.
Consequently, the climax of the Durkan had to share the screen with pictures from the 2.05pm at Cork.
“It's very unfortunate and very disappointing, and the Durkan family are fantastic supporters of racing and of Punchestown, but at the same time these things happen,” O’Neill said in reference to the race sponsor when informed of the reduced commentary and split screen.
“We can appreciate how it has occurred but from Punchestown's perspective it is very disappointing.”
O’Neill is also chairman of the Association of Irish Racecourses, which ultimately ceded control of the rights to SIS when the new deal was agreed in 2016. Of the absence of commentary for much of the Durkan, he added: “It's an ongoing issue that we're in discussions over and we'll have to look into it. It's not ideal.”
The drop in media rights revenues for 2020 has been forecast for some time. With 18 fixtures a year, and each race worth approximately €7,000, for a track like Punchestown the total income from media rights would be in the region of €1 million, so a ten per cent reduction could cost around €100,000. An increase in the revenue received for streaming rights is expected, but not so much that it will negate the reduction from betting shops.
Explaining the background to the issue, O’Neill said: “Within the current media rights contract there are a couple of variables, one being the sterling exchange rate and the other being the betting shop numbers. With Brexit, the sterling rate has fluctuated quite significantly over recent months and the betting shops, after the FOBT limits were cut, have reduced in number, so those two variables impact on the LBO [betting shop] element of the revenue tracks receive from media rights.
"Racecourses' reliance on media rights is hugely significant, so losing ten per cent would obviously mean you have to adjust budgets and spend. It puts the emphasis on racecourses to increase additional revenue streams and look to attract more people through the gate to take the reliance off that."
Responding to the issues on Sunday, a Racing TV spokesman said: “It was obviously very unfortunate that Davy Russell was taken ill prior to the John Durkan and we wish him all the very best. The episode triggered a ten-minute delay to the feature race which meant it started after the feature race in Britain, the Fitzdares Peterborough Chase, was already under way.
"Unfortunately, we are always at the mercy of unforeseen delays in horseracing, but we will review Sunday’s output and the processes in place and will continue close dialogue with the BHA, HRI and the racecourses about the planning and management of race times to improve the scheduling of UK and Irish racing.
"Good progress has been made this year on that front but there’s always more that can be done.”