Live from Aintree: ITV guides the world’s favourite horse race to the finish
The ITV Sport team is under starters orders for the Grand National on Saturday 14 April. It’s the nation’s favourite horse race and the most watched in the world – with the re-run of the same race, which is aired shortly after the winner crosses the line, a close runner-up.
It’s also the second outing for ITV and the centrepiece of its four-year 2017-2021 deal to broadcast around 100 days of racing annually on its main channel, ITV4 and ITV online, including other pivotal events as Royal Ascot and the Derby.
Like those events, the Grand National is more than just a horse race. It’s a pageant of sport and drama, fashion and etiquette and while the four and a half mile (10 minute) race takes top billing, the broadcaster wants its host coverage to capture the imagination of up to 600 million of viewers around the world.
“The short time between the live race and the live re-run transmissions make it particularly demanding for everyone.”
By pulling apart the coverage it wanted to achieve, by rethinking the facilities and team required and allowing a proper rehearsal on the days leading up to the National to evaluate any changes, ITVs first attempt passed “smoothly” but left the 2018 production with a high bar (or should that be fence) to jump.
“We felt that we were able to achieve a large ramping up of facilities in our coverage last year which gave the viewer a far more rounded understanding of what the race and event are all about,” says Roger Pearce, technical director, Sport, ITV Sport Productions.
“The Grand National is a complex outside broadcast operation and very challenging in every operational area. In particular, we want to present the event live from almost anywhere in the location which makes the operation heavily dependent on RF coverage. This needs expert engineering.”
To that end, ITV has tapped the technical expertise of its key facilities suppliers, NEP, ACS and Moov. ITV Racing’s technical manager Tony Cahalane says the Grand National is one of the world’s toughest races for horse and jockey, but the jumps are also high for the production and operational teams covering it.
“The short time between the live race and the live re-run transmissions make it particularly demanding for everyone,” he suggests.
A total of 21 races will be run during the three-day Grand National Festival beginning with Grand Opening Day on Thursday 12, moving on to Ladies Day on Friday 13 and culminating in Saturday’s Grand National Day in which forty runners compete for a top purse of over half a million pounds. Aintree Racecourse will host over 150,000 racegoers across the three days.
“The preparation involves an immense amount of planning as there is no real way to rehearse,” says Pearce.
“The race coverage is extended through the use of more cameras than ever before with careful planning and negotiation to position these, along with specialist cameras to cover areas that have traditionally been a bit sparse. Fence mini cameras of a high quality are used to give unique footage of the oncoming horses and their riders. FX mics in fences lift the viewer’s interest through precise in-sync dramatic fence effects.”
He adds, “An understanding of horse racing is essential for the key roles. It has been crucial to be able to build on an excellent core of suppliers such as NEP, Moov, ACS and BT.”
While the live race is being run, the ITV production team begins assembling the re-run, a separate programme shown in real-time almost straight after the race but using new angles and material. In recent years this has attracted a larger audience than for the live race.
“It is a tough challenge to give a team a short period of time to reconstruct the race with different camera angles and graphics analysis live on air,” says Cahalane.
The amount of radio-based coverage was ramped up by 35% in 2017 from previous coverage and ITV plan a similar assignment this time.
Coverage will be achieved with a total of 54 cameras including radio cams, two Super slo-mo and two Hi-Motion cameras.
Also included is a Camcat, an ACS provided wirecam positioned along the last bend and home straight that spans over 400 metres.
There’s also an RF camera rig to cover the starter’s point of view, a Heli-teli and a live Batcam drone. “A lot of effort has been put into negotiations to allow the drone to cover areas not best covered by ground-based cameras,” informs Cahalane.
There are two tracker cams onboard camera vehicles, one of which is fitted with a jib arm and gyro head for an RF Hi-Mo camera. “This achieves closer and high-speed coverage for dramatic post-race replays parallel to the horses,” says Cahalane.
A second tracking gyro head situated on the curved track above the weighing room “offers a panoramic view of the Parade and Winner’s area,” he adds.
- Two further Jimmy Jibs are used to capture the crowds and sense of occasion on the Aintree mound course side with one for the extended parade of horse walks before the event.
- For festival views across the parade, capturing the glory moments of the Winner’s presentation, the production will call on a Tower cam.
- In the Wash Down Area (Stables Yard) a pair of cameras will be radio linked to avoid the safety risk of cables. Access was negotiated with the BHA/Trainers and Owners and the cameras moved on a daily basis during the event.
- Additional live race coverage is afforded by mini cameras fixed within four fences to provide replay and head on angles. There’s also a mini-cam fitted to the helmet of one jockey riding the race, radio linked to a tracking vehicle and bounced to the main receive sites
- The EVS capacity is 9 x eight channel XT3s for the main live coverage and a further four EVS machines for the re-run facility to allow for separate rehearsals. Five Chyron engines generate live graphics.
- In partnership with NEP, ITV is trialling the new Tri-Mo RF (first used at Cheltenham in March). This enables a H/H RF camera to be used as a line camera but at the same time it has the three phases recording direct to EVS so it operates as a hi-motion.
- The Tri-Mo will be operated out of the NEP Equinox truck which is the principal OB facility used for ITV racing. The truck is based around an Imagine Communications Platinum IP3 router and features Sony MVS series production switchers, Telex communications technology and a 56-fader Calrec Artemis console, among other core equipment.
Specialist sound coverage
Key fences are covered with live FX microphones “to capture the true sound as the riders approach the fences,” says Cahalane. “Fibre remote stage boxes are deployed to allow more FX microphones around the course and to gather more actual live FX than ever before to accentuate the newly recorded course FX loops that ITV commissioned.”
ITV will provide three main transmission lines, all completely redundant and via fibre and two separate satellites plus a World feed that is distributed by Racecourse Media Group (RMG).
Wanting the flexibility to present from three separate positions around the confines of the venue which is packed on race day, ITV worked with the course officials to provide a solution “through recommendations and collaboration.”
This has culminated in a complete RF and battery-powered presentation stage that can be erected, dismantled and moved at very short intervals.
For instance, the main presentation area in the centre of the horse Parade is struck as soon as the race begins, and the Randox Winner’s Podium built in less than five minutes.
Although horse racing is one of the sports likely to be ideally suited to the adoption of remote production, ITV Sport has no plans to move to a remote workflow for racing at the moment.
“We are concentrating on immersing the viewer in the racing culture and we believe that having the production team on site is crucial to getting a feel for the event,” says Pearce.
“With 50 odd cameras being used on the Grand National I can’t see huge advantages to remote IP workflow with present OB and connectivity technology.
“However, we cover around 100 days live through the year so the remote production options have to be considered at some point,” he adds.
Without the luxury of huge amounts of airtime for analysis on the main ITV channel, second screen coverage has become important. ITV has a dedicated online team “that looks to allow the viewer to get a broad feel for the event via a variety of streamed platforms and the ITV Racing app,” says Pearce.
“Racing is a data-hungry sport and there is a lot out there to work with but we need to present it in a form that adds value. The availability of accurate horse tracking data is most eagerly anticipated and its exploitation on-screen is going to trigger some really creative technical thinking.”
ITV’s coverage of the Grand National Festival starts on Thursday 12 April at 2pm. The 2018 Randox Health Grand National is due off at 5.15pm on Saturday 14 April.