‘The Grand National is a great race,’ one of Britain’s most respected racecourse chiefs told me over lunch the other day, ‘but in 2013 we’ll all be watching it from behind the sofa.’ Aintree’s showpiece remains racing’s biggest attraction, the one event that brings in the non-racing world to have a bet. Eleven million watch it in Britain alone. But because of the media focus, especially on any animal deaths that occur in it, he was arguing, the Grand National is also racing’s biggest potential public-relations disaster, as when the Gold Cup winner Synchronised and According to Pete died in last year’s race.
Within days there was dramatic supporting evidence for his opinion. John Smith’s, the Heineken-owned ale company that has sponsored the richest jumps race in the calendar for eight years, announced that it will pull out after the 2013 renewal. The company did not link its decision publicly with horse welfare issues and some suggest its decision was affected by the likelihood of a smaller TV audience for next year’s race (since Channel 4 is taking over the TV coverage from a BBC that has lost interest in the sport and doesn’t have the cojones to cover it). Either way, more changes have now been made to the race and most racing administrators see the John Smith’s pull-out as a significant victory for the animal-rights activists who would like to see an end to jump-racing altogether.
I don’t believe the switch to Channel 4 will trim the numbers watching racing on TV as much as some fear. Clare Balding and Nick Luck, who head the new Channel 4 team, are Gold Cup quality, polished communicators with deep knowledge of the sport. That said, any Channel 4 racing team which decided that Alastair Down and Mike Cattermole were surplus to requirements — and waited until the eve of the new team’s announcement to tell them — will need to work hard to win my viewing loyalty.