Never mind David Cameron. Are you participating in the Great Debate about an event of national significance that stirs the blood of millions? No, I don’t mean the General Election: racing is in a tizzy about who should lead the television coverage of this year’s Grand National since the sainted Clare Balding (whom God preserve) has opted on the big day to cover instead the predictable procession in the Oxford v. Cambridge Boat Race. Channel Four, in whose hands Aintree coverage rests, has been semi-publicly agitating whether to allow Clare’s fellow racing presenter Nick Luck to replace her in fronting the show or to go outside for a ‘big name’, who will supposedly resonate with the wider non-racing public who tune into jump-racing just once a year.
For me there is no contest. Nick Luck is a polished and experienced presenter with a deep racing knowledge and limitless contacts within the sport. He is far more likely to win intriguing and informative responses from jockeys, trainers and owners than some non-racing ‘star’ like Jeremy Kyle or Vernon Kay. The very fact the debate is taking place is another depressing example of TV’s ratings-driven celebrity culture, which jettisons genuine knowledge and insight in favour of a knee-jerk ‘which big name can we find to front this series and boost the ratings?’ I adore watching Joanna Lumley acting in some sharply penned film or sitcom. I will tune into any radio or TV show that enables Stephen Fry to demonstrate his wit and gift for wordplay. But I don’t want La Lumley or the dexterous Fry filling my screen when I have tuned in to watch a nature or travel series.
Why, anyway, should the Grand National need a personality outside the sport to lead the coverage? Does anybody clamour for coverage of Wimbledon or the Open Golf Championship to be led by the Strictly Come Dancing panel? Would the Australians or the French let a showbiz outsider present the Melbourne Cup or the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe? Good luck to Nick. The whole thing is a nonsense that reminds me of Sonny Liston’s response to a furore over who should referee his world-title bout. ‘Who cares?’ he said. ‘So long as he can count to ten that’s all that’s needed.’
Star horses, riders and trainers and decent-sized fields, not a sprinkling of showbiz stardust, are what racing needs to keep the public coming through the turnstiles. Many of those at Ascot last Saturday went purely to watch the return of Sprinter Sacre, the most exciting jumper most of us have seen in the past two decades, after a heart murmur had kept him off the track for 13 months. Sprinter did not win but he gave us a glimpse of his previously exhilarating style before tiring over the last three fences to finish second.
By including Aubusson and Tea For Two in our Twelve to Follow, this column has hopefully helped to highlight one bright new talent on the racing scene — conditional rider Lizzie Kelly, who partners both in all their races. Having already won a big handicap hurdle at Haydock on Aubusson, at Kempton the previous weekend she partnered Tea For Two to an astonishing 9–2 victory in the prestigious Lanzarote Hurdle judging the pace coolly. Afterwards she said, ‘I wasn’t surprised he won. I thought I could hear them grouping up behind me and I thought, “They’ll be here in a minute”, but they never arrived. It was a lot easier than I thought. The initial pace was too comfortable for him so I thought I would get on with it. Up front is a nice place to be in these big runner races: it’s in your hands if you know what you have got underneath you.’
Just a few months out of university after studying event management, and now snapped up as a professional conditional rider by Neil King, Lizzie is confident, sharp and amusing. Asked if she regretted once commenting that she wouldn’t put up a girl on a horse she replied, ‘Probably I do. But girls need to know that you’ve got to work at it. I am lucky that I have got back-up [with horses owned by mother Jane and trained by stepfather Nick Williams]. We might argue at home but my mother lets me ride her horses in races.’
Lizzie has spent time acquiring experience with a number of trainers. When I asked which ones she replied, ‘Are you ready?’ and reeled off a list including among others Alan King, Henrietta Knight, Neil King and Emma Lavelle. Significantly, she worked two summers in Ireland with champion trainer Willie Mullins. A realist, she insists for instance that A.P. McCoy, champion jockey for every year she has been alive, has forgotten more about race-riding than she has yet learnt, but she is cool, confident and grounded with clear views on racing’s marketing. It is a hard road for women riders: even if her talent doesn’t take her all the way in the saddle, racing should make proper use of her qualities.