Call for Racing UK deal to be referred to competition authority

‘Why is nobody mentioning the competition authority . . . before our industry pictures are gone down the Swanee?’

Disquiet at the prospect of the Racing UK channel taking over the broadcasting of Irish racing next year has led to a call for the matter to be referred to Ireland’s competition authorities.

Ratification of a deal between Sports Information Services and Racing UK that switches broadcasting rights from the At The Races channel is widely expected at a general meeting of the Association of Irish Racecourses in Newbridge on Tuesday.

The AIR board has recommended acceptance of the deal which will see Irish racing pictures move to the subscription RUK channel in 2019.

SIS holds the broadcast rights to all 26 of Ireland’s racecourses until 2023. It has decided to switch coverage from At The Races to Racing UK which has the Racecourse Media Group (RMG) as a parent company. RMG has media rights to 37 tracks in Britain.

The new deal has been criticised in some quarters, including by the Ryanair boss, and leading owner, Michael O’Leary, who on Sunday described it as a retrograde step and bad for Irish racing.

O’Leary forecast a RUK monopoly would lead to the demise of At The Races, which he said would be very damaging for racing here in terms of competition.

Concerns have also been expressed about the potential impact on Irish racing’s profile and viewing figures if live pictures are behind a paywall. At The Races is part of a basic digital package.

Both Horse Racing Ireland's chief executive, Brian Kavanagh, and the AIR chief executive, Paddy Walsh, have declined to comment on the matter until after Tuesday's meeting.

However, on Monday Eddie O'Leary, who manages the Gigginstown Stud operation, echoed concerns expressed by his brother, Michael, and queried if the matter is an issue for the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission.

“This is very serious for Irish racing and why is nobody mentioning the competition authority or the monopolies commission before our industry pictures are gone down the Swanee? Who refers this stuff because somebody needs to before this is ratified,” he said.

“In doing this, when there’s renegotiation in 2022 there won’t be an At The Races so there won’t be any competition. And we’ll be hidden behind the red button, and behind paywalls.

“Who owns Racing UK - the British racecourses. They’ll do a super job helping Irish racing, won’t they?

“In doing this, they’re finishing ‘Attheraces’ and there won’t be any competition. Surely that’s something for the competition authorities to look at,” O’Leary added.

The Competition and Consumer Protection Commission is the independent statutory body set up in 2014 after an amalgamation of the old competition authority and national consumer agency.

On the racing front, O’Leary ruled out any dramatic switch to the Champion Hurdle for Gigginstown’s star mare Apple’s Jade.

Last year’s OLBG Hurdle winner is a strong favourite to retain the crown at Cheltenham next month on the back of her Christmas defeat of Supasundae over three miles at Leopardstown.

On Saturday Supasundae upset Faugheen to win the Irish Champion Hurdle leaving Buveur d’Air an odds-on favourite for the two-mile championship at Cheltenham.

Apple’s Jade is one of 23 still in the Champion Hurdle and is as short as 12-1 in some betting lists. However, despite the race cutting up the Gigginstown team aren’t tempted by hurdling’s biggest prize.

“Always try and win the race you think you can win. The only reason we have mares is because they introduced a very good mares series. Why would we go away from it?

“She goes for the mares hurdle. She will be kept in the Stayers Hurdle just in case something goes wrong and she whips around at the start or something stupid. But she runs in the mares,” O’Leary said.

“The Gigginstown spokesman also said he was “thrilled” Road To Respect missed out on Sunday’s Irish Gold Cup. The Christmas Grade One winner is on track to go straight to Cheltenham for the ‘Blue Riband’ prize next month.

Connections were anxious not to run Road To Respect on testing conditions and O’Leary commented: “As it turned out, with the rain that came, we were thrilled he didn’t run. On the Saturday it was ‘oh-oh’ but we were over the moon he didn’t run on that ground. Hopefully he gets his ground at Cheltenham.”

O’Leary ruled Sunday’s Irish Gold Cup runner up Outlander of a trip to Cheltenham - “he’s been there twice and hates the place” - but indicated Saturday’s Irish Arkle runner up Petit Mouchoir will take on Footpad again at Cheltenham.

“He’s always aggressive and needs a run to get the anger out of him so we were delighted with him. He definitely goes for the Arkle and we’re looking forward to the rematch. Footpad was very good but hopefully he’ll meet a fitter Petit Mouchoir there,” he said.