Being a racing broadcaster must be one of the hardest jobs in the world. This is because racing people are passionate about and protective of their sport, excessively opinionated, and often unconvinced by change. Everybody knows what racing should look like and everyone secretly dreams of the glory days of Sir Peter O’Sullevan.
I was one of those people, in the turbulent days when Channel 4 Racing gave the job to a new outfit. There would be changes, and secret technology, and, help us all, gimmicks. I at once gathered up all my toys and hurled them from the pram. I did not want gimmicks. I did not want special touch-screens. I wanted Alastair Down, with his shambling dress sense and his poet’s heart. I wanted re-runs of every single race and more shots of the horses in the paddock, going down, in fact anywhere. If a ravishing thoroughbred so much as pricked her ears, I wanted a shot of it.
I could not bear the sight of Jim McGrath looking rather lost and forlorn since he no longer had his great compadre beside him. How could they deprive him of John Francome, greatest jockey and greatest broadcaster, whose dry-as-a-bone asides and lyrical voice harked back to the days when he and the noble Lord Oaksey used to marvel over Desert Orchid’s impossible leaps? I felt an injustice had been done to the suave and smiling Mike Cattermole, who had once had to do battle with the rudest owner in racing. There must have been nothing else to cut to and there must have been a frantic producer yelling in his ear ‘you’re coming into the final furlong’ as Cattermole manfully struggled to get a single polite word out of the taciturn person, before tottering away, a broken man. And after all that, there was no place for him on the new team.
So I yelped and howled and complained. More horses, I bawled on Twitter; no no not another vapid celebrity interview.
Then, slowly, slowly, something unexpected started to happen. I began to see that although the old band was no longer in town, there were some new stars. Nick Luck, quietly and without fuss, turned into one of the most polished broadcasters in the business, with his glinting humour and his excellent suiting. Mick Fitz stole into my heart with his twinkly eyes and his years of experience and his love and knowledge of the thoroughbred. In Alice Plunkett, the new Channel 4 had unearthed one of the most natural onscreen talents I’d seen in years: completely authentic, unapologetically enthusiastic, and unafraid of emotion. Simon Holt, who had survived the change, developed into the most heart-stopping caller of a race since the legendary O’Sullevan. There are other good commentators out there, but he had that little extra something which I can only call soul. He understood and admired the grand fighting qualities of the horses he was calling and hung out more flags for the genuine and the brave.
Clare Balding stepped up to make the big occasions as splendid as they should be, combining her trademark professionalism with the love of horses she inherited in her cradle. I even started to like some of the more eccentric stuff, like when Rishi Persad, with great determination and good humour, trained to take part in a charity race. The behind-the-scenes features – visits to Frankel at stud, or the maestro that is Aidan O’Brien at Ballydoyle – were beyond price. Jim McGrath stopped looking lonely and started to make jokes again.
I had to admit that I had been entirely wrong. I gathered up my toys, put them back in the pram, and began to enjoy myself.
And now there is to be another great change. I’m not going to make the same mistake again. I’m going to give the new lot a chance and be on their side, because I love racing so much it makes me cry (literally) and I want it to succeed.
All the same, I feel a little melancholy today, as Channel 4 and the old guard have their last hurrah. If you watch racing every week as I do, these people become like family to you. I’ve seen them wrangle with the unexpected and go on smiling through the pouring rain and keep the show on the road even when there are only three wheels on the wagon. They love the game as I do, and they brought it flashing into my quiet Scottish room with verve and enthusiasm and passion. So I do thank them and I will miss them and I put up my hands and say: I was wrong. That start might have been a little bit glitchy in places, but as the race went on it developed into something fine. And everyone, from the headline act to the most behind-the-scenes runner, deserves credit and gratitude.