SKY CHANNEL promised punters a new revolution in racing coverage but it would seem the more things change the more they stay the same.

When it was announced that Sky Channel 2 and Sky Racing World would join the stable, two of the main goals identified were more choice for punters and less congestion.

We certainly have more choice – greyhound racing from obscure venues like Hatrick in New Zealand; harness racing from Sweden and gallops from Wolverhampton. You can stay up most of the night and bet until you fall asleep.

But when it comes to congested coverage that was going to be overcome, one could argue that despite the addition of Sky2, it is worse than ever. And most are blaming that on an obsession with TAB turnover – or to put it more crudely, simple greed.

One accepts that in any new venture there are going to be teething problems. But even before the launch of Sky Racing World there is widespread criticism and confusion among punters over the current state of play on Sky 1 and 2.

Racing media outlets are being inundated with complaints – no doubt Sky is receiving them as well – and most are from punters who somehow missed live coverage of races. The general opinion seems to be that they are not too sure whether a race is to be shown on Sky 1 and 2 with late switches causing them to miss seeing their investments go around.

I sat down and tried to watch some of the weekend coverage on Sky 1 and 2 and after wearing out my remote control finger have to agree that the current situation is an absolute farce. There was even a period on Saturday where Sky 2 was blacked out for a short time due to ‘technical difficulties.’

What infuriated me more was the constant need to move from Sky 1 to 2 to watch races that I initially thought would be shown on Sky 1. Eventually I worked out that the switch was being necessitated by delays in starting races because of horses refusing to load or having to be re-shod or whatever.

Whilst this is beyond the control of Sky Channel the problem has been accentuated by the addition of extra race meetings which means there is no room for error. Industry insiders claim that clubs have been told to advise starters that there can be no longer delay than three minutes at the start of races.

This direction has allegedly come from Sky Channel which begs the question of just who is running racing in Australia – the stewards or Sky. Horses are animals, not machines. They can’t be remote controlled into the barriers. There are going to be delays and these should be allowed for in program scheduling.

Someone at Sky should be sent the message that bigger is not necessarily better. Instead of cramming meetings of all codes from obscure venues into their coverage plans, they should be looking for quality rather than quantity.

Then again that’s probably why we have TVN and why punters and at-home viewers in their thousands are turning off Sky since their supposed racing revolution was launched. God help them if they expect punters to pay for the Sky 2 service.

One might suggest to Sky that what they should be aiming for is this:

SKY 1: Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth coverage restricted to the major gallops meetings during the day. The only time harness and greyhound racing should be seen on this channel is at night when there are no gallops.

SKY 2: Major provincial, matinee meetings and the harness and greyhounds.  If there is a delay then record and replay but don’t disturb the quality coverage that most want to watch on Sky 1.

RACING WORLD: International coverage boosted by major Black Type racing from Australia.

There are many thoroughbred enthusiasts who would like to see a separate channel just for the trots and dogs. Some even joke they could highlight that with gallops from Cushion Track venues, which most punters don’t want to bet on.

The problem is that the TAB has encouraged the move from night racing to day and twilights by the trots and dogs to boost turnover. It has reached saturation point but few punters would be prepared to pay to watch the ‘red hots’ and ‘leg lifters’ on a dedicated channel.

One of the greatest public relations disasters for Sky occurs on days when major gallops coverage is interrupted after a close finish to a big race for a cross to some obscure greyhound venue. The atmosphere is lost and so are the viewers who immediately switch to TVN.

Most of us are still waiting to hear what it will cost to watch Sky 2 and Sky Racing World. The ‘free viewing’ period only lasts until the end of May. Whatever the cost many punters are saying they will not subscribe. It should be free – subsidized by the TABs who are making millions.

When announcing the launch of two new channels, Sky said the objectives of the changes made to the delivery of racing vision were designed to:

Provide customers with more choice on the nature and extent of racing they wish to watch.

Enhance the showcasing of the best racing product across the three codes of racing.

Provide a new vehicle for the expanded export of Australian racing

Ensure some cost contribution to racing vision is made by customers of wagering operators who currently get a ‘free ride’.

That last comment has never sat too well with the average punter who prefers to stay at home and watch his racing rather than pay for the privilege of losing his cash at the track.

Tabcorp’s former Managing Director of Wagering, Robert Nason (now with Telstra), upset a legion of punters with comments he made during an interview on Sport 927 in Melbourne when discussing Sky’s expansion plans.

The interview that Nason did with then host Steve Moran (who was later shown the door by 927) has been universally described as a ‘public relations disaster’ for Tabcorp. He was far from happy with Moran for daring to criticize him and Tabcorp, and then made small punters feel as though they didn’t matter.

It came in an answer to questions from Moran on costs involved in the ‘new racing revolution’ that Sky Channel had promised.

Most believed the initial plan to provide Sky Channel free of charge, as part of the Pay-TV package, was to ensure its availability to those viewers who might not otherwise be interested in watching racing or having a bet.

It was seen as a vehicle to promote the racing industry and increase betting turnover by attracting interest from those who are not regular punters or thoroughbred enthusiasts.

An interview that started so well on Sport 927 ended just as badly for Nason, who was understandably keen to talk-up the new product but won few friends in the battling punting fraternity with his handling of questions on how important they are to the overall racing picture and why charges have to be imposed on them and can’t be absorbed by TAB profits.

If only Nason had stuck to his original message: ‘There will be a charge’ – ‘It’s not our charge but will be part of the pricing packages to be announced by the Pay-TV providers’ – and best of all – ‘What we are intending to do is subsidize that cost for any customer who bets with Tabcorp, initially at no cost at all.’

Instead he got hot under the collar and fired this gem at Moran: “WE HAVE TO END THIS ‘FREE RIDING’ THAT IS GOING ON WITH PUNTERS. We cannot continue to maintain unprofitable services in an environment of multiple providers.

“We have to maintain services that give us a return. I think that is a reasonable position for us to take. SKY CHANNEL CAN NO LONGER BE PROVIDED FOR FREE. It has to be on a user-pays basis.”

Nason became more incensed when Moran suggested that this was all about privatization of the TAB and making profit. “I am sure your customers will be disappointed at having to pay for the expanded Sky Channel service,’ Moran said. “Surely if the TAB benefits from income generated by the punters, they are entitled to be subsidized to some degree?”

Nason replied: “It has absolutely nothing to do with privatization. If it was a racing industry owned wagering operator they would be taking the same action.”

Last week Sky Racing won an important court ruling over TVN in the Victoria Supreme Court which now allows Sky to show Sydney and Melbourne metropolitan racing on its new channels.

TVN boss Peter Sweeney has told the Sydney Morning Herald that he fears the thoroughbred product is being ‘diluted’ through too many racing channels at a time when wagering is under siege from rapid growth in other gambling such as sports betting and online casino games.

“No one’s done any research to say that the introduction of four channels actually helps the brand, or will it just dilute it - so it just becomes like a poker machine on legs, where it’s just a race every two minutes?” Sweeney said.

Rob Hines, chief executive of Racing Victoria, believes all thoroughbred race clubs in Australia should assign their rights to TVN and allow the broadcaster to negotiate the best possible deal.

Ideally, Hines thinks, Tabcorp should sell 60 per cent of Sky to TVN. “I think if you look at all sports, and racing’s no exception, controlling your own media rights and particularly how the vision is presented to the public is absolutely crucial for the future of the sport.”

Hines, too, is concerned about the way racing is shown on Sky. “Horse racing fans want to see the horses in the yard, they want to have interviews, they want to discuss the form, they want to see them canter up to the barrier and they want to see interviews with the jockeys and trainers afterwards. There isn’t time for that on these high-speed, dense channels that Sky’s delivered.”

The wild-card in live TV racing coverage at the moment is Queensland where the races attract about 17 per cent of bets placed nationwide. Over the next few weeks, for the first time, that state’s industry will consider who to assign its entire broadcast rights to - Sky or TVN.

“This is a very, very important decision,” Queensland Racing chairman Bob Bentley (also a director of UNiTAB) says. “The clubs own the rights to their racing – that’s not disputed – but  they’ve taken the step to think it would be better to negotiate as a total industry in Queensland, rather than as individual clubs. Because in the past, they’ve been picked off one by one and they’ve got a less-than-optimal deal.”

Victoria Racing Club chief executive Dale Monteith suspects all clubs will expect to receive more for broadcasting rights in the future. “No one wants to see what happened last time, which was a war, which led to the value in the picture being diluted and had an effect on wagering … But at the same time, the industry and the racing clubs aren’t prepared to see their rights being undervalued.

“'The industry, I'm sure, could get its picture around the world if it so decided … but it seems crazy that we’ve got Sky and TVN at the moment - that you couldn’t come to some arrangement.”

You have probably heard enough of the on-going Sky – TVN debate so I decided to end this column on a light-hearted note with the odd serious implication.

Just imagine what racing could be like in the year 2020, especially if industry stakeholders from owners, trainers, jockeys and officials continue to become so increasingly thin-skinned that every time something is written or said that upsets or offends them a ban is imposed or a threat of legal action is made.

Picture the scene – practically deserted racecourses (those that haven’t been sold) with the only ones in attendance those physically involved in the meeting itself. There are no bookmakers on course. Punters have been priced out of going to the track – at $100 a head to get through the gate, $30 for a pot of beer and $20 for a hot pie – it’s a once a year treat, if that.

The Pubs and Clubs are doing a roaring trade because it has become virtually impossible to afford to watch TV racing at home. Sky has 69 Channels but you have to pay a fee to watch each one of them.

TVN is still free but its coverage is restricted to camel racing from the beach at Broome; goat racing from the Bjelke-Petersen Compound at Kingaroy; toad races from the Picnic Bay Pub on Magnetic Island; and for those fans of off-shore fixtures, Black Rhino racing from the Mayfield-Smith Manor in the heart of Africa.

Television sets have replaced poker machines in the majority of horse racing-oriented hotels. With 70 separate screens to take in all the action, punters arrive armed with form and program guides that resemble War and Peace.

The key players in the industry are contracted to talk only with the highest bidders. Rather than do the form the night before, punters have to wade through the program guides and work out who and what to watch and where to get the best information out of their race viewing.

‘Camp Williams’ has delegated Nick junior, son of Nick, as the sole stable spokesman and he can only be seen on Sky 31 after Andrew Bensley hosts a regular This Is You Life In Racing segment with the patriarch of the family, Lloyd.

Gai Waterhouse is contracted to speak only on Sky 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24 (at this rate we’ll run out of space). You can hear her on 60 of the 69 Sky Channels and she is making a guest appearance on ‘Out of Africa’ on TVN where she talks about growing up in Double Bay with her pet panther until it ate TJ’s prize tabby, Dominic.

John, Michael, Wayne, Warren, Fred, Trixie, Nicki, Oscar and Felix of the Hawkes Racing Dynasty can be seen exclusively on Sky 27 in between two features on the controversial Cushion Tracks. The first ‘A Reason to Race on Cushion’ lasts just one minute. The second ‘Reasons Not to Race on Cushion’ is an edited version that goes for three hours.

Over at Sky Channel 66 – where boutique coverage is provided of racing in the Sunshine State – Mark ‘the Ear’ Oberhardt provides his ‘long shot’ preview where nothing under $31 is tipped – largely because that’s the average price of the winners in Brisbane these days. Favorites have a winning ratio of one in 57. Mark’s much-watched preview follows ‘Battery Bill’s Saddling Tips’ brought to you by Ever-Ready and the trainers from that complex we better not mention.

Down at Sky 3 they have an exclusive debate between two of the ‘big men’ of Australian racing – Nathan Tinkler and Richard Callander. This is available in Super Wide Screen Vision only. Those with the smaller plasmas (under 80inch) will only be able to see one of the participating parties.

2020 and Bob The Builder Bentley is still running all three codes of Racing Queensland but has retired from the chairmanship of the Australian Racing Board which finally relented to pressure and allows each jockey to carry a whip in each hand, one behind his back and another in his riding boots. But ageing NSW chief steward, Ray Murrihy, still refuses to retire, insisting that whips can only be used after the horses have passed the winning post.

Bob the Builder’s deputy at QR, ‘Nifty’ Neville, sponsors the richest race in northern Australia, the $10 million QRIS Classic (half of the prizemoney is provided by the new – they finally made it in 2019 – LNP Coalition Government where Premier Ray Stevens is a great favorite at racing functions where he cracks out the old guitar and his taxpayer funded Gold Card to entertain the troops.

Cups King Bart Cummings, now in his 90s, has just won his 20th Melbourne Cup but has refused Sky contracts since a media scrum bowled him and his walker over in the Flemington enclosure during the Spring Carnival of 2013. He lets his horses do the talking these days but makes an occasional guest appearance on Sky 55 after Dr Dolittle’s nightly segment on ‘How to Spot a Ring-In and Family Favorites in Racing.

At the Lee Freedman stable, where ‘Emma’ has taken over training duties from her Hall of Fame dad, there is no lack of media interest. Francesca Cumani was so overtaken by her love affair with Australian Racing and its male centerfolds that she followed the convict lead and took up permanent residency in OZ as ‘Emma’s foreperson.’ The femme fatales of the Freedman stable breed guard dogs as a sideline to keep a hungry Paparazzi from photographing them sun-backing by the stables in their birthday suits on a warm Rye day. Emma has refused to speak with the media since that infamous faux pas on national TV about ‘Danny O’Brien rolling in his grave’.

It’s time to wind up the 2020 segment with a news release from Sky on the national survey of punters just undertaken to determine their favorite Racing Channel. To the surprise of all it was SKY 1.

When long-time host ‘Mute Button’ was forced to quit after losing his voice permanently (largely due to incessant chatter), management decided that Sky 1 would be a ‘pictures only’ channel – no words apart from the race calls.

It turned out to be just what the punters wanted. What a pity it took Sky twenty years and a generation of lost viewers to find out what most would be only too delighted to tell them today. All they have to do is ask!


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