Boxing clever

Racing has far better TV pundits than football

Turf Account

This article is taken from the May 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

I’m old enough to remember a time before you could just turn on the telly and watch racing — any race, at any track. Until the launch of At the Races in 2002, the only televised racing was on BBC or Channel 4 (and ITV before that) which meant Saturdays, along with a few big midweek meetings.

In those prehistoric days, for live coverage you had to go to a bookie and listen to “the blower” — a box from which emerged betting news, results and commentaries. There was a mini-revolution in 1986 when the law allowed bookmakers to show pictures in their shops, and the 1980s saw another innovation with the rise of premium rate phone lines.

I wasn’t the worst commentator ever. But I more or less defined the word “average”

Although they quickly became associated with sex chat, the main bookies and other savvy businesses used them for racing commentaries which you could dial in to hear. And that’s how I became a racing commentator.

I wasn’t meant to do the actual commentaries. My job was supposed to involve speaking so compellingly between races that people wouldn’t put the phone down the moment a race was over — the longer people dialled in for, the more the profits racked up — but the tech was so awful that nine times out of ten they couldn’t get hold of the feed, so I’d have to do it (the office had a bank of screens with the same TV pictures the bookies had).

I wasn’t the worst commentator ever. But I more or less defined the word “average”. It sounds fun, even glamorous, to say you’ve been a racing commentator, but for me the reality was sitting in a grotty basement office in Farringdon.

It’s a different world now, of course. You can watch live racing — even a video library — on your phone and racing has (rather stupidly) two dedicated channels. But for all the choice, it’s easy to overlook one of the more basic points about broadcast coverage: racing is remarkably well served. ITV, for instance, has just extended its contract to the end of 2026 and will show over 100 days’ racing every year. That’s a phenomenal amount. And ITV doesn’t just show the racing: it uses its might to promote it and push it to the top of viewers’ minds.

Racing fans understandably moan about the decline of column inches in newspapers — racing correspondents are now a rare breed and few papers now print even abridged racing cards — but daily papers are a dying medium. Any sport reliant on newspapers for publicity is in trouble.

As a journalist, I am of course troubled by this. I want writers to prosper. But as a racing fan I’m not that bothered. There are so many other outlets that are far better long-term bets. When you look at broadcast coverage of racing and compare it with, say, football, you see how much better served we are.

As a journalist, I want writers to prosper. But as a racing fan I’m not that bothered

The irony of the recent Gary Lineker row is that he is garlanded as one of the best sports broadcasters when all that really means is that he is capable of talking smoothly on air. If you are looking for insightful analysis of a game from him you’ll be sorely disappointed.

Not that Lineker is alone: very few of the regular football pundits serve any real purpose beyond being recognisable as ex-players. Alan Shearer, Danny Murphy, Martin Keown, even Ian Wright (who is clearly a mensch away from the cameras) are all about as insightful as a lump of wood.

There are some who add value — Chelsea coach Emma Hayes, for example, always tells you something you didn’t realise — but football analysis is generally woeful.

Compare that with the likes of Ruby Walsh, who is incapable of uttering a dull sentence. Racing TV also has the peerless Lydia Hislop (pictured), who treats viewers and those involved in the sport as if they are adults. No TV football pundit is in the same league as these two.

Even though ITV has a difficult job in appealing both to casual viewers and obsessives, its presenters (mostly) manage to add insight whilst also making sure they aren’t speaking in jargon. Jason Weaver is a master of the art. And its main presenter, Ed Chamberlain, is pound-for-pound more than a match for Gary Lineker.

There is, as I am usually compelled to write, a lot wrong with racing. But there’s a lot right, too.

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