Cheltenham fans may have paper’s card marked

Former Fleet Street sports editor PETER CORRIGAN scours the pages for Cheltenham race cards – and finds changes at The Guardian which might not be to every reader’s liking

Good form? Race cards are back in the Guardian for Cheltenham week, but might they have lost readers by dropping racing pages the rest of the time?

For horseracing fans, this is a very busy week. The Cheltenham Festival lasts four days, has 27 races and 400 runners. That’s an powerful lot of studying to be done and Guardian readers will be delighted that their favourite newspaper is making it easier for them – assuming, of course, that the paper‘s band of racing enthusiasts are still with them.

A month ago, The Guardian transferred much of its racing service – racecards, results – from the sports pages to the internet. It was a move consistent with their policy of a gradual shift away from print, but one which carried a greater risk than usual.

Racing followers are the most loyal of sporting readers but are also the most demanding. After all, theirs is a costly passion and one which involves hours of patiently sifting through all available form and advice.

It’s impossible to estimate how many of The Guardian’s racing readers have been prepared to travel to the internet to get the information that was previously available in the paper. Or how many have decided to buy another paper.

But, perhaps, it is significant that the full racing service is back in the sports pages for this week for Cheltenham. And very good it was on Tuesday, the opening day of the Festival. There were the usually highly readable pieces from racing correspondent Greg Wood and tipster Will Hayler, while Donald McRae, perpetual interviewer of the year, did a big item on jockey Sam Waley-Cohen.

Three of their pages were devoted to Cheltenham, with no cards for other meetings, which was much less than rivals like the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. But, in fairness, The Guardian has fewer sports pages at their disposal since they moved them from their separate section into the main paper.

Having said that, the Independent’s ‘i’ is much slimmer but managed a fuller Cheltenham coverage, including the jockeys’ colours, which are always a boon.

However, it’s not the quantity of The Guardian’s coverage that’s the issue but the long-term prospects of having to wander to a website to weigh up the form – assuming they are going back once Cheltenham is over.

Many of us bet online now and it is possible to place a bet via your mobile and then watch the race on it. So racing is already firmly fixed on the internet but as The Guardian‘s sports section has been squeezed for space, have they taken a step too far, too soon?

Having to carry race-cards and all the attendant but important trivia has long been a problem for newspapers, particularly back in the days when they had far fewer pages than we have now. But such was strength of reader interest, it was generally accepted as a necessary burden . Having a good racing service with popular tipsters was a big seller.

My father was a staunch Labour man but wouldn’t read any other paper but the Daily Express because he was devoted to their racing service and in particular Peter O’Sullevan. It was a proud day for me when I moved to Fleet Street to join the Daily Herald in 1963, but he wouldn’t even consider changing his paper.

And they're off... how many readers might gallop away from race-card-free newspapers?

The growth of all-weather racing in recent years hasn’t helped the newspapers’ space problems. There are now many more meetings and more cards to carry. The new meetings are sparsely attended and seem merely to be betting mediums – perhaps the bookmakers should pay for the space they take? – and The Independent was the first to cut back on the cards they carried during the week.

But The Guardian is the first to make the complete cut and they may be regretting it. It is ironic, because the old Manchester Guardian never carried cards before the early 1960s and did so reluctantly then. Now they are the first to banish them, albeit it to another place.

The Racing Post won’t complain, of course. The racing industry’s daily organ has probably already welcomed some disgruntled ex-Guardian punters who will glory in their excellent service.

Come to think of it, if your newspaper is forcing you to visit the internet to study their cards, you may as well go to the Racing Post website, which is mostly free and far more comprehensive than the sadly disenfranchised Guardian racing boys could possibly match.

The Guardian may find that there’s more than one way to lose money at horse racing.

  • A former Observer sports editor, Peter Corrigan was for 14 years the author of The Hacker column in The Independent on Sunday. Now it continues … online. Click here to visit his site


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