I am prone to sudden storms of sadness. I do not mind this at all. I regard it as the price I pay for happiness. The stormier these squalls are, the quicker they pass, and the more cathartic they are, and the sooner the sun comes out again.
At 4pm today, walking back through the still Scottish gloaming from seeing my mare, I felt a piercing sorrow. At first I thought it was because I had watched rather an emotional afternoon of racing, and it had made me think of my dad.
I’m just missing my old horseman of a father, I thought. That’s the rational existential reason; and that’s fine. It happens pretty much every Saturday afternoon, after all.
Then I realised something very peculiar indeed. It was not Dad. It was the new Channel 4 Racing coverage.
This is where the ‘horse thing’ as my ironical friend in New York City calls it, gets very, very nuts indeed. But all I can do is tell you the truth, however left-field it might be.
There’s been a big fuss over the racing. The BBC let it go; Channel 4 had a marvellous opportunity to pick up the baton. All terrestrial coverage would go to them.
There had been no complaint about what they did up till now. There were odd grumbles about some of the team, jokes about vulgar old McCririck and bumbly Tommo. (Derek Thompson is known in my family as ‘Toilet Thompson’ because he once said, live on air, ‘Oh look, that horse is going to the toilet.’ But now he is gone, I realise his talents and miss him keenly.) I used to get a bit annoyed about the endless Dubai idents, or whatever they are called, and the maddening amount of advertisements, especially when the paddock analysis was just getting interesting.
But, essentially, they had a great group of presenters, who knew and loved their horses. There was the particularly brilliant commentary of Simon Holt, the wonderful double act of John Francome and Jim McGrath, the knowledgeable and unflappable figure of Mike Cattermole, the smiling enthusiasm of Alice Plunkett, and the passion and depth of Alistair Down. There were weak links round the edges, because there always must be. But the technical side was outstanding, the retellings of the big races particularly fine, and the work in the paddock thorough and good.
Most telling of all, there was absolutely no popular outcry for Highflyer, the existing production company, to be changed. Surely there could be improvements, but it was one of those real cases of not fixing it, if it ain’t broke. It was not broke.
And then, someone, at some meeting, in some infinite wisdom, decided to throw all the cards up in the air. Get in a new production outfit called IMG, sack half the presenters, hire some not obviously better new ones, and start all over again.
The twitterers and the Facebook groups and the Racing Post comment section went into uproar. I mourned the loss of Francome and Cattermole and Down in particular, but held my fire. These were seasoned television professionals, after all; surely they must know what they were doing?
The awful truth is: I’m not sure they do. It’s early doors, and let us hope that they will allow themselves the humility to admit the things that are not working and keep the things that do. But just now, it’s a mess.
The graphics are ghastly, the music over the montages is ragged rave, or dubstep, or some banging thing that a middle-aged creature like me does not even know the name of. There is barely a glimpse of the horses in the paddock. There are hardly any replays of the races. The old, intricate ‘Story of the Race’ appears to have gone. In fact, outside the live races themselves, there is oddly little about the horses on the course.
There are some good new ideas. There is a focus on the people who work behind the scenes, which is long overdue. And there are some good interviews. But apart from that, it’s a big old buggery muddle. I grieve it like an old friend.
I am perfectly certain that the people who work at IMG and Channel 4 are intelligent and polite and good-natured and well-meaning. I am sure they are kind to animals and old ladies. I do not think that they ruthlessly set out to ruin anyone’s racing pleasure. I would put money on the fact that they did not sit down one day and say, rubbing their hands with glee: ‘Let’s make a crazed racing woman in Scotland cry.’ But they did. They made me weep actual tears of regret.
‘There is,’ I wrote to my most reasonable Twitter friend, who is more optimistic than I about the whole shower, ‘the very real possibility that I may be over-reacting.’
I can’t quite work out why. I suppose it is that I love the racing so much. Literally, and metaphorically, it makes my heart beat faster.
It is also that the old Channel 4 Racing has been with me through so many triumphs and tragedies. I can still talk you through Ted Walsh’s proud commentary as he watched his son win his second Gold Cup on Kauto Star. I can take you back through Alistair Down’s Cheltenham Festival paeans of praise, and the banter between Francome and McGrath before the 2011 Sussex. I can recite almost word for word Simon Holt’s thrilled commentary as Frankel won the Juddmonte. (‘They can’t get him off the bridle.’) I can still see poor Mike Cattermole’s face as he fruitlessly chased a head-shy pack of Rothschilds around the wining enclosure after the Eclipse, desperately trying to get any member of that family to say a nice thing about the lovely Nathaniel.
Those voices live in my head; those informed, engaged people have held my hand through big race nerves, wonderful wins, and crashing disappointments. They were not broke, yet someone came along and fixed them. They were, I suddenly realise now, like a televisual family to me, and now there has been an acrimonious divorce, and all that is left is shattered memory.
The really interesting thing is that there is not a single person, on the comment boards, on the social networks, in actual life, who is saying: oh, look what they have done; isn’t it all marvellous and shining and clever and new? There is only the low sound of sad grumbling, the distant crash of expectations, and the desultory scuffing of shoes, as people desperately try to look on the bright side.
It’s just television. It’s just a sport. The new lot will sharpen up. The memories of the fine old guard will fade. But just now, I am sadder than I can say.
Stanley the Dog:
The little herd:
My glorious mare, furry as you like for winter, a million miles away from her own sleek racing days:
She was most consoling when I told her the whole doleful story this afternoon. She rested her head on my shoulder and breathed into my ear, and seemed perfectly sanguine about the whole farrago. Perhaps she and the optimistic Twitter friend are right. I just needed to get the whole thing off my chest. Better now.
Hill, from a wider angle than usual: