Another alarming loss of audience has been recorded by Channel 4 Racing, whose broadcast of a thrilling King George VI Chase on Boxing Day reached an average of just 475,000 people. That compares with 651,000 for the previous year and means a third of the audience has been lost since 2012, when 746,000 tuned in.
The slump is all the more of a pity in light of the quality of action on the track this Boxing Day, when Cue Card nailed Vautour on the line to win the King George and set up a tilt at a £1m bonus in the Gold Cup. Earlier races had produced a return to form by the champion hurdler, Faugheen, and a historic first success in a Grade One by a female jockey when Lizzie Kelly scored on Tea For Two.
The audience decline is also reflected in the peak viewing figure for Boxing Day of 770,000, down more than 20% from the 990,000 of a year before. Channel 4 declined to comment.
It comes at a difficult time for those behind the programme, who have been trying to fend off a bid from ITV to seize the terrestrial television rights for the sport. Pitches are believed to have been made to the rights-holders some weeks ago and a decision is expected this month as to which station will be awarded a new four-year deal to begin in 2017.
Kempton also reported a slight decline in attendance for King George day at “just over 20,000” compared with the usual sellout crowd of 22,000. However, the track’s manager, Steve Parlett, said this was largely an anticipated consequence of reducing capacity in some areas to improve spectator experience.
Paul Nicholls has poured cold water on concerns about the modest recent form of his stable, which he believes is the result of a combination of factors including a bit of bad luck. “We are going through one of those spells that all trainers experience when a lot of our runners are hitting the crossbar,” the champion trainer said at the end of a month in which he recorded a strike-rate of 10%, less than half what he managed in the past four Decembers.
“All four of our runners finished second at Newbury on Tuesday, which shows that there wasn’t anything wrong with them,” Nicholls wrote in his Betfair column. “Every random blood test and trachea wash we have done has been perfect, which doesn’t surprise me because the horses continue to look well and are working nicely at home.
“We have not had one horse sick or coughing or bleeding and the ones we’ve checked over after they have run below expectations have all come back fine.” Nicholls conceded that some of his runners have not been finishing their races in recent weeks but felt that had a lot to do with the very testing surfaces prevalent at most tracks.
Nicholls remains top of the trainers’ table with more than £1m in prize money, putting him £200,000 clear of his nearest pursuer, Philip Hobbs. “We will be fine, no question,” he said but added that an immediate revival is probably not on the cards. “This is the time of year when all our team have a flu jab followed by a couple of easy weeks, so we will not be having many runners in the first part of January before we crack on again.”
Nicholls has had no luck with his last 28 runners and his strike-rate for the last fortnight is 6%. His most recent winner, Mon Successeur at Ascot’s pre-Christmas meeting, runs on Friday at Cheltenham, where he is likely to start second-favourite for the big betting race of the day. Nicholls said the horse would have to improve again to score this time, having been raised 10lb.
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