Victoria Pendleton saddles up at Cheltenham as horse racing returns to ITV for first time in decades

Horse racing returned to ITV on New Year’s Day after a 32-year absence and it seems to have gone down well with punters.

Fronted by former Sky Sports presenter Ed Chamberlain, the coverage from a rain-soaked Cheltenham was positively received with newspaper commentators praising both Chamberlain and his illustrious guests, former jockeys Sir Tony McCoy and Luke Harvey.

Viewing figures also appeared to be encouraging with an average of 676,000 and a peak of 831,000 – almost 120,000 up on Channel 4’s New Year’s Day coverage last year.

Chamberlain himself, who could be seen for much of the show under a green umbrella, said he was pleased with how the first show went.

He said: “I genuinely loved it. There were lots of little things. I’ve never made more notes before a show but they were washed away before we even got on air and I was using my iPad as a paperweight. I’ve ruined a good suit but I’m still pleased we were at the heart of the action as we promised.

“The team behind the scene, production and direction, were unbelievable. We were happy under umbrellas – they had nothing.”

As well as hardened punters, ITV will be hoping it’s coverage picks up viewers at the various high points during the year, including those who like betting on the Grand National, Royal Ascot and the other big profile meets.

Matt Chapman featured in the betting ring and others involved included Mick Fitzgerald, Alice Plunkett and Olympic cyclist Victoria Pendleton, who famously rode last at the Cheltenham Festival.

Speaking about the on-screen team, which also included veteran football reporter Gabriel Clarke, Chamberlain added: “It was a great thrill to work with AP [McCoy]. I thought he was excellent and it is great to have Gabriel Clarke, an iconic figure in television sports reporting, interviewing Jonjo O’Neill.

“It’s amazing to have got someone of his calibre working on racing. Alice Plunkett probably won’t get much praise for it but she did some excellent stuff with the stable staff – it’s what we’re all about.”

Last autumn, ITV revealed details of its plans to show 41 racing days on the main channel.

Coverage will begin on the main channel, with the New Year’s Day meeting at Cheltenham.

And the 41 days will encompass the Grand National, The Epsom Derby, all the major festivals including Cheltenham and Royal Ascot, the Five Classics, plus other highlights of the racing calendar such as Future Champions Day at Newmarket and Champions Day at Ascot.

In addition, ITV4’s racing coverage will see a re-introduction of free-to-air broadcasts of the Craven Meeting at Newmarket in April.

ITV will show two days including the Nell Gwyn and Craven Stakes, key trials for the 1000 and 2000 Guineas.

Both days of Newbury’s winter festival featuring the Hennessy Gold Cup will also be broadcast.

The deal further enhances ITV’s portfolio of world-class sports rights, which includes the Tour de France, the French Open and exclusive live coverage of the England football team’s qualification campaign for the World Cup 2018 qualifiers.

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