More than 60-years of sports broadcasting history will draw to a close when the BBC Television broadcasts its final horse race later this year.
Following the announcement that Channel 4 will become the sport’s exclusive terrestrial broadcaster in the UK, prestigious events such as Royal Ascot, the Epsom Derby, and the blue-ribbon Grand National meeting at Aintree will have a new look and feel from next year.
The loss of its entire racing portfolio to a terrestrial rival is a huge blow for BBC Sport to absorb, at a time when it is cutting back on its output while hanging on to its most valued, but expensive, contracts – such as Match of the Day, Six Nations and Wimbledon – but it had been expected for some time.
The BBC’s director of sport Barbara Slater said the corporation was “very proud of its role in ensuring that some of the most iconic moments in the history of racing had reached the “widest possible audience”.
Slater added: “We are of course disappointed that we have lost the rights, but we are pleased that all the races in the contract remain free-to-air.
“Our coverage this year will mark the end of a partnership covering some of the key events of British racing that extends over 50 years.
“Over those many years we have consistently improved and enhanced our coverage, producing outstanding programming that viewers have hugely enjoyed.
“The BBC are proud of their long heritage of broadcasting horse racing and put in as competitive a bid as possible in the current climate.
“We still look forward to broadcasting the Grand National next month and then the Derby and Royal Ascot which have special significance in the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee year.”
This year’s Grand National on April 14, together with the Derby and Royal Ascot in June will be the last on the BBC until at least 2017.
The BBC is also expected to drop coverage of the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp, which is separate from the Channel 4 deal.
While a future return to racing cannot be completely ruled out, the decision not to take on Channel 4 for the sport’s most lucrative rights is a reflection of the drastic change in the BBC’s attitudes towards the sport.
The amount of live racing shown on the BBC declined drastically over the last decade, down to just 13 days a year since 2010, as the reported budget cuts, coupled with the diminishing enthusiasm for the sport from BBC bosses, started to take effect.
This has also been mirrored in the corporation’s golf and tennis output, which has also been stripped down to similar levels during the same period.
While the BBC were keen to do everything they could to secure expensive long-term deals for the Six Nations and Wimbledon, they didn’t extend the same courtesy to the Grand National, a race which regularly attracts up to 10m viewers and more than 500m worldwide.
For millions of sports fans who grew up watching some of racing’s most iconic moments, all brought to life to by the voice of the great Sir Peter O’Sullevan, it will be tough to comprehend the fact that the sport will no longer have a presence in the BBC schedules.
Racing has been a focal part of BBC’s sporting portfolio since the early 1950’s.
It’s first live broadcast came from Ascot in 1951, but it wasn’t until 1960 that the BBC started showing live coverage of the Grand National, which at the time was one of the most complex outside broadcasting operations that they ever undertook.
Racing became a regular fixture on the BBC’s long-running flagship Grandstand, screening events such as the Grand National and the Derby for decades on the programme, until its demise in 2007.
Clare Balding, who has been involved in the BBC’s racing coverage since 1996, taking over as anchor from Julian Wilson two years later, gave her reaction to the news on Twitter.
She said, “I’m desperately sad that BBC TV has lost all rights to cover horse racing. I’ve worked with some wonderful and talented folk over the last 16 years.
“I am immensely proud of everything we have done and of the team I have worked with at BBC Sport. I’ve given it my life and soul.
Balding, who works in a freelance capacity for the BBC, has already been linked with a possible move to front Channel 4’s coverage, which is expected to be revamped next year.
“I’m not rushing into any decisions about what I will do in the future. 2012 is a busy enough year to keep me on my toes and then we’ll see.”
Her regular on-screen partner and the five-times champion flat jockey Willie Carson was disappointed by the news.
“The BBC have been involved in racing since the year dot,” he told the Press Association.
“BBC is a national broadcaster throughout the world – unfortunately racing is going to lose. BBC giving up racing is sad.”
Roving reporter Rishi Persad, who joined the BBC’s racing output in 2003, also said on Twitter: “For all the kind messages about BBC losing the racing, thank you very much. I wish C4 all the best and that racing continues to thrive.”
Rumours of the switch of the sport’s marquee events to Channel 4 surfaced at the Cheltenham Festival.
Prior to the announcement, Sir Peter O’Sullevan, the ‘voice of racing’ who called 48 Grand Nationals for the BBC during his 50-year career with corporation, lamented the BBC’s decision not to fight hard enough to save its racing coverage.
The 94-year-old told the Daily Mail: “I have spent my lifetime lamenting the BBC’s lack of interest in a sport that is woven into the fabric of the nation.
“There are people in their ivory towers at the BBC who have made a serious miscalculation over this decision.”
The Grand National remains one of the very few sporting events that has the power to bring both the nation and the world together in front of the TV for the 10 minutes it takes to run the world’s most famous steeplechase.
Veteran betting pundit John McCririck, believes Channel 4 has a “huge responsibility” to build on the years of tradition that the BBC held.
“Racing has shown its trust in Channel 4 and the monopoly television position will be a huge responsibility to the sport and the millions who enjoy it,” he told the Press Association.
Despite being a member of the Channel 4 team since it 1984, McCririck is saddened by the BBC’s decision to drop the sport.
“For nearly 15 years I worked as a racing sub-editor on Grandstand and was in the BBC studio doing prices and SPs (starting prices) on Saturdays and Cheltenham, the Grand National, Derby and Royal Ascot.
“It is so sad that the legacy of Sir Peter O’Sullevan and more recently Claire Balding has been lost.
“But Channel 4’s commitment to racing, initiated by Jeremy Isaacs (founding chief executive of Channel 4) in 1983, has been part of the channel’s fabric.”
“The challenge will be to build on the traditions of the BBC by extending Channel 4’s innovations and continue to show how racing is both a serious sport and fun to be part of.”
The BBC is cutting its spending on sports rights amid plans to make savings of 20 per cent in the wake of a six-year licence fee freeze.
It is thought to be using the funds to try to protect its exclusive coverage of Wimbledon and the Six Nations, with the BBC believed to be paying almost £300million to secure long-term deals for these two events alone.
It is a sad reality of the times that the BBC’s once peerless sporting portfolio continues to be shredded down bit by bit, with racing being the latest casualty.
The BBC will broadcast its last Grand National, Royal Ascot and Derby meeting this year, with the corporation expected to bow out from televising the sport for good at the Welsh Grand National at Chepstow on December 27.