Saturday, August 28, 1999 Published at 16:20 GMT 17:20 UK
Grand National up for grabs
Around 12m people watched Bobbyjo win the National
Grand National bosses are to offer the BBC's television rights to the world-famous race for sale on the open market.
The move threatens the Corporation with the loss of yet another major event from its calendar, as commercial competitors continue to make inroads into the BBC's sporting portfolio with lucrative bids.
The Corporation's contract to cover racing from Aintree expires at the end of the year 2000, making next year's Grand National the last to be covered by the BBC under the current deal.
The BBC immediately vowed to fight to retain the rights for the race, which it has televised since 1952, and upped the pace by confirming that it is trying to win back the Cheltenham Gold Cup, lost to Channel 4 five years ago.
More than 12m people now tune in to watch the Grand National every year, after more than 45 years of joint development by Aintree and the BBC - making it an ideal target for private sector operators such as Channel 4.
Charles Barnett, managing director of Aintree, said: "We will gladly listen to bids from channels like ITV and Channel 4 - we are not expressing a preference for anybody.
"We will be looking at a series of factors, including the fee, the likely potential audience, the quality and type of coverage and what the bidders can bring in terms of build up. Nothing has so far been decided."
It is understood that negotiations for the rights will begin towards the end of the year, with the BBC and Channel 4, which is launching a digital racing channel, starting as favourites.
The BBC, which pays an estimated £2m a year to cover the race, remained bullish about its chances, saying it expected competition but believed its sports division had the pedigree to launch a successful bid.
A spokesman said: "We would expect that other companies would bid for the Grand National but after the time spent working on the event with Aintree we have no interest in giving it up.
"The BBC has won more than 20 sports contracts in competition with other channels, and the corporation carried 19 of the 20 most-watched race meetings last year so we believe we are in a strong position for success."
The listed status of the Grand National means it must be screened on one of the main terrestrial channels, although a joint bid with one of the satellite operators cannot be ruled out.
ITV has said it is not currently preparing a bid to cover the race.
Channel 4 later pledged to defend its contract for the Cheltenham Gold Cup, and indicated it would be taking an interest in talks about the Grand National.
News that the race for the Grand National is now on will come as yet another blow for the already beleagured BBC Sports department.
It has had to put up with raiders making off with many of its sporting crown jewels in recent months.
Grand Prix motor racing, The Ryder Cup, England's home rugby union internationals, Test Cricket and the FA Cup final have one by one gone to rival broadcasters.
BBC stalwart Des Lynam has also announced he is transferring to ITV to work as a sports commentator.