Aintree tragedies scar end of a broadcasting era

The BBC’s coverage of the Grand National came to a sadly tragic end, writes STEVEN DOWNES

That was the Grand National on the BBC.” And so Clare Balding signed off at the end of another tumultuous piece of sports broadcasting. Once off-camera, Balding is said to have wept for the deaths in the race of two more horses, which casts a dark cloud over the race’s future.

Neptune Collonges, left, battles up the long home straight at Aintree against Sunnyhillboy

After the British racing authorities took the decision to hand a monopoly on terrestrial racing coverage to Channel 4 in a £20 million four-year deal, questions were already being raised about the future of Aintree’s “world’s greatest steeplechase”.

For Jonjo O’Neill, the trainer of the runner-up, Sunnyhillboy, and one of the horses that had to be destroyed, the nine-year-old Synchonised, the day was worse than bittersweet. It will have recalled some very unwelcome memories.

Barely a month ago, Synchronised was being hailed for his impressive win in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Today, he died following a fall at Becher’s Brook. In 1979, O’Neill had ridden the winner of that year’s Gold Cup, Alverton, a nine-year-old trained by Peter Easterby. That horse was entered for the National the following month, and started as favourite. But it fell at Becher’s and had to be put down. Can a crueller history ever have been repeated?

Today’s tragedies came despite extensive efforts by the racecourse and the British Horseracing Board, under pressure from animal welfare groups, to make the race safer. But they can never make the Grand National “safe”.

It is the very danger of the race which makes it the event that it is. Like an adrenalin junkie who has just done their first bungee jump, jockey Katie Walsh, after riding Seabass into third place, breathlessly said that she wanted go round again straightaway.

The safety measures, of reducing the height of the fences and insisting on only better quality horses being entered for the Grand National, has not reduced the fatalities. If anything, it has possibly only ensured that the race, providing the going is “good”, is run at a faster pace. No longer is it a race for steady old stayers and hunter chasers to plod around. And just as the road safety signs have long warned us: speed kills.

A sign of the high quality of chasers in the race was that the last National to be televised by the BBC was won by Neptune Collonges, a relative outsider at 33-1, but a horse who in his day had managed to finish third in a Gold Cup, beaten only by Kauto Star and Denman.

With his last-stride victory by the narrowest margin in the race’s history, the Paul Nicholls-trained grey delivered for the Beeb the sort of breath-taking finish that they clearly so desired, as from the off, Balding and commentator Jim McGrath were virtually willing there to be another “special” story from an event that down the years has delivered more than its fare share of triumph and tragedy.

The BBC’s retreat from coverage of yet another top-line sport means the loss of some considerable talents from our screens: the ever-excellent race caller, and Telegraph racing correspondent, Jim McGrath; the authoritative but under-used Ian Bartlett; and, of course, Balding. Because  for all her calm assurance as a presenter on other sports, it is on racing – the sport that she has been steeped in all her life – where Balding’s knowledge and know-how really shines, as her assured performance through today’s marathon four-hour broadcast showed.

In all of it, perhaps the most poignant moment was when Balding had to correct herself as she spoke over pictures of Synchonised just before the start.

Champion jockey AP McCoy had already been unseated by his mount on the way to the start, causing a 10-minute delay while Synchonised was caught, checked by vets and then hacked back to the start. McCoy duly rode the horse to view the first fence. Synchronised baulked. Balding heard herself questioning whether the horse even fancied racing today, before dimissing the comment, as if it might tempt fate. Her insight proved unnervingly accurate.

The preceding hours of television provided us with a glimpse of what the BBC always used to deliver with excellence, in the misty-eyed archive tribute to Red Rum’s trainer Ginger McCain, and in James May’s film that gave steeplechasing the Top Gear treatment.

But there were low points, too, in an almost schizophrenic presentation that seemed to set out to try to make sport interesting to people who are not interested in sport, a task worthy of Sisyphus.

So early on we had Balding explaining by speaking v-e-r-y slowly, that the G-r-a-n-d N-a-t-i-o-n-a-l is a h-a-n-d-i-c-a-p, and using half a dozen bags of sugar to demonstrate how much one stone in weight is. Most adults, even those who have never watched a horse race before, are capable of counting.

The BBC's cameras will no longer be at racecourses from 2013, after covering the sport for more than 60 years

And yet despite an equally patronising approach to the betting markets – an essential part of the coverage on the biggest single gambling event of the year – the BBC’s racecards failed to provide the horses’ race weights and ages, vital details for even once-a-year punters.

It all gave the programme the air of a channel which shows the sport all-too-rarely. For long gone are the scholarly, midweek filmed previews of the National on Sportsnight by Julian Wilson. The slippery slope really began when the BBC lost its coverage of the Cheltenham Festival. Regular racing coverage from Ascot, Newbury, Goodwood and Haydock has all since gone.

Now C4 will be the sole terrestrial broadcaster of racing from 2013,   respected observers of the game are worried that there will be diminishing returns.  Greg Wood, the Guardian‘s racing writer, wrote: “My suspicion is that it is the National that will eventually look back on the split with the BBC with lingering regret… This could be the moment when its status starts to slip.

“The Grand National is likely to lose viewers when it moves to Channel 4 because, in effect, no one has reminded them that it is on… Over time, that will represent a great many people who are losing their only annual contact with racing, and countless children who will not get their introduction to racing and betting via a few pennies each-way on the National.”

It is a familiar failing formula that has affected other sports that have sought greater immediate income from other broadcasters. The coverage by satellite channel Sky Sports has been excellent – in many cases innovative and often an improvement on that previously offered by staid old Auntie – but ultimately it is seen by far fewer people.

Cricket is never likely to regain the wall-to-wall coverage it once enjoyed all summer on a terrestrial channel; in rugby league, despite Murdoch millions, leading clubs are teetering on insolvency; and how many great boxing champions are now able to walk down their home town high street virtually unrecognised for lack of the audiences of many millions that used to tune in to big fights on BBC or ITV?

Channel 4, of course, is far from being a pay-TV backwater as far as audiences are concerned. But the events at Aintree today may mean that the National really is never again seen on the BBC.

  • Steven Downes, the SJA Secretary, is a past winner of a Royal Television Society award for sports news coverage


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