I am old enough to remember the I.T.V. 7. In deed as a schoolboy, infringing the laws of the land, it is where most of my pocket-money was spent. My first real memory, where no doubt my love of this sport was born, is being put in front of a black and white television one Saturday afternoon while my parents went out to buy me a birthday present. It must have been April 15th, though I cannot be precise about the year. 1962, perhaps. Or 63.
Having established what I prefer to be thought of as ‘my vintage’, I hope no one will question my authority to speak about the television coverage of horse-racing, and I.T.V. now having the privilege to broadcast our sport.
Let’s get one fact out into the open from the start: televised horse racing today is better by a considerable distance from what went before. I will even go as far as claiming that today’s commentators are in the main better than even the doyen of the art Peter O’Sullivan. Heresy, I know, to some, and I can only defend my view by suggesting that people go on YouTube and delve into the archive. The great O’Sullivan is thought to be voice-perfect but in truth he wasn’t. Hoiles and Holt are better than anyone who has gone before them. And Nick Luck and Ed Chamberlain are better than Julian Wilson or even the great Lord Oaksey.
I freely admit that I thought we were throwing the baby out with the bath-water when I.T.V. won the right to cover horse-racing, as I did when Channel 4 became the exclusive broadcaster. I was unwilling to accept the need for one continuous narrative and was horrified that the Grand National was to be televised by a commercial channel. I was wrong to be sceptical, of course, and the continuous narrative argument was correct and Channel 4 did a brilliant job with the Grand National.
Which is why I couldn’t understand what Channel 4 had done so wrong to have the sport taken from them. They had their faults and occasionally made mistakes, though nothing as annoying as the B.B.C. once did by interrupting a race from Cheltenham to inform us that the Birmingham 4 had been released from prison. I disliked the emphasis on betting and I never liked John McCririck and was pleased when he was let go. Equally I thought it a mistake not to renew the contract of Alastair Down, though I accept other people might have opposing views. In a team comprising a dozen or so presenters the individual viewer is not going to warm to every one of them and it will be the same with I.T.V.
So I was not entirely on side when I.T.V. returned to broadcast our sport. I didn’t and do not want them to fail, as some letter writers to the Racing Post seem to suggest. Their role in promoting racing is vital. In deed our sport might live or die on their watch. And in my opinion they began okay, no better than Channel 4 but no worse. I suspect I knew they would be okay in the last moments of the first ‘Opening Show’ when Oly Bell exclaimed ‘Phew!’ and ran his hand across his forehead. His relief was our relief. He had done okay.
But at Cheltenham last weekend my near ambivalence, my secret wish for them to be no better than Channel 4, was washed away. The team’s on-the-hoof reporting of a tragedy won me round. I was concerned that ‘banter’, as people kept saying they wanted from the presenters, would very quickly go hollow when something horrible occurred.
What came across in the aftermath of Many Cloud’s death was not the professionalism of the trained journalist reporting facts as would done on a news broadcast, but the raw emotion of something that was ruining the spectacle. I doubt if Channel 4 would have allowed Alice Pluckett to interview Colin Tizzard when it was clear that only moments before she had been crying. Oly Bell was witness to Many Clouds collapsing and even at the end of the programme he was clearly still affected. The joy had been sucked from the day and that is what I.T.V. allowed us to witness. And demonstrating that jockeys too can be affected by loss it was absolutely brilliant of Daryl Jacob to pass on the jockeys’ condolences to Many Clouds connections.
What I.T.V. conveyed to the viewing public is that racing people care about racehorses, that when a horse dies it is a tragedy and that the tears of the racing community are not the crocodile tears of a missed penalty but a heart-wrenching reflection of our deep love and admiration for the racehorse.
In Ed Chamberlain and his team the sport is in reliable hands.
Keith Knight is a workaday writer of fiction, worker in the real world but foremost a horse racing fanatic. The joy of the sport is the horse - all horses.