Robin Oakley

The turf | 19 January 2017

Horse-racing’s survival depends on the success of the channel’s coverage of the sport

The turf | 19 January 2017
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You had to feel for ITV’s new racing team on their opening day at Cheltenham. It was cold, wet and utterly miserable but they opted not to take refuge in a warm studio but to stay close to the action under their brollies, putting a brave face on things. During what I nowadays look back on as my misspent youth as BBC political editor, I once did the same. As I began a live interview for the Nine O’Clock News from an outside balcony at a Labour party conference, bursting to reveal some exclusive information, the heavens opened. I was drenched within 30 seconds but continued, only for the newscaster to cut me off after just one question with a brisk ‘Thank you, Robin Oakley in Brighton.’ Furious, I called the programme editor: ‘What the hell were you doing? This is a big story. I needed much more time.’ The reply was simple: ‘Absolutely no point, Robin. Even in the studio we were all watching nothing but the line of wet creeping down your shirt and the rivulets running off the end of your nose. No viewer will have been listening to a word you said.’ Broadcasting gremlins you learn to cope with, but none of us can do anything about the weather.

ITV’s front man Ed Chamberlin, the former Sky TV football presenter, and team members Sir Anthony McCoy, Luke Harvey and Mick Fitzgerald coped well with the extra strain provided by the elements. So did Ian Bartlett the following week, commentating on the runners in a Wincanton fog: do the weather gods have something against ITV as racing’s new broadcasting partner? Although I suppose the brolly huddle may have helped to underline the team spirit intended to characterise the ITV coverage.

They are going to need camaraderie because there are three main problems in covering racing. The first is the length of time between races, which leaves much talking time to be filled by presenters who have to be both knowledgeable and likable. The second is the dilemma that those of us who write racing books face too: how much can you explain the rites and language and symbols of this mystic sport to the uninitiated without irritating the aficionados? The third is that for many racing is less a sport than a gambling medium. The sport’s finances depend on gambling and ITV wouldn’t be covering racing at all if it didn’t see useful revenues coming its way from bookmaker advertising. But many of those involved with the sport, including such major figures as trainer Mark Johnston and David Redvers, the guiding hand behind Qatari Sheikh Fahad’s vital racing operation, find the coverage of betting irritating and intrusive.

On betting, the ITV team have clearly decided to bite the bullet. The voluble, energetic Matt Chapman is the cigarless John McCririck of the new age and Ed Chamberlin, who has been surprised by the degree of scrutiny his team is undergoing, insists that there are good stories to be told about the betting side as well as the horses. Significantly, the Saturday morning magazine show presented by Oli Bell has taken its title, The Opening Show, from the betting term. But they are giving us plenty of colour pieces too about racing’s participants.

I much admired Channel 4’s polished racing anchorman Nick Luck and while I don’t know Chamberlin, I am warming to his inclusiveness. And for me any team that includes Luke Harvey and Mick Fitzgerald, two of the rock-solid good guys on the racing scene, and the warmly knowledgeable Alice Plunkett, has plenty going for it. The only question mark in these early days is over the inclusion of former Olympic cyclist Victoria Pendleton. Although she succeeded bravely in her switch from riding bicycles to riding horses over jumps, she is neither a racing expert nor an experienced broadcaster. Hopefully, though, she will prove to be more than a sprinkling of celebrity stardust.

Frankly, we all need to be rooting for the new team because how they perform in ITV’s return to racing coverage after 32 years will be crucial to a sport that now has to fight for its future. Through the Levy system racing depends on betting for its lifeblood. The higher the viewing figures, the higher the volume of betting and the bigger the slice of revenue coming back into racing. The Cheltenham Festival and the Grand National do well anyway but the racing authorities have switched to ITV in the hope of boosting TV audiences for the big occasions such as Royal Ascot and Champions Day.

It is something of a worry that much of the racing coverage will be shown not on the main ITV channel but on ITV4. But as Ed Chamberlin pointed out in a Racing Post interview, this is a year of opportunity. With no football or rugby world cups, no Euros and no Olympics, racing has a chance to grab the spotlight. Having recovered from stomach cancer he calls himself a ‘lucky man’. Let us hope some of it rubs off.