Channel 4 Racing
Channel 4 has in a sense become the home of horse racing since its first broadcast in 1984, although it’s the BBC that has the rights to the biggest events: Ascot, Epsom and of course Aintree. It is Channel 4, however, that covers the week to week racing, and whether the meeting is at Sandown or York, Newmarket or Cheltenham, if it’s on a Saturday then Channel 4 will be there with all the best interviews, analysis and of course, live racing.
With Grandstand coming to an end on the BBC and broadcast rights for the England cricket team’s test matches going to Sky, regular sporting events are in increasingly short supply on terrestrial television. This is where the importance of Channel 4’s racing coverage really becomes clear – it is the horse racing equivalent of regular Premiership action being shown live on terrestrial television and any football fan will tell you how unlikely a scenario that is.
It’s probably fair to say that the programme is aimed at racing enthusiasts as opposed to beginners and it certainly lacks the glitz and glamour of the BBC’s coverage but for sheer quality of content it is hard to fault, a view shared by the Royal Television Society who recently named Channel 4 Racing the Sports Programme of the Year.
Presenters and Commentators
Channel 4’s racing coverage has, for a long time, been synonymous with the larger than life John McCririck. However despite (or perhaps because of) an ever increasing profile due to appearances on celebrity versions of Big Brother and Wife Swap, the betting expert has recently had his contribution cut by 18 Saturdays a year. Despite this decision McCririck is still a key figure, prominent in all the channel’s major festival meetings such as Goodwood, Cheltenham and Newmarket. It would certainly be hard to see McCririck being fazed out altogether, as love him or hate him, there is no doubt that he brings some much needed flair to the proceedings as well as handing out some genuinely useful advice and tips.
Aside from McCririck there is a host of other presenters and commentators who provide everything a seasoned horse racing fan should be looking for in a television programme. Derek Thompson and Lesley Graham do a very good job presenting the day’s racing while there is expert analysis from Tanya Stevenson, Tom Lee, Emma Spencer and Jim McGrath plus commentary from Richard Hoiles.
There is a very raw feeling to the coverage with no stuffy studios or pre-recorded features. Instead Stevenson and Lee join the presenters in the thick of the action, giving the coverage a really busy atmosphere and making the viewer almost feel as if they are at the course themselves. The one studio that is used generally has the look of a temporary building and houses Jim McGrath and Emma Spencer. Although it could be said that this sort of rough presentation detracts from the programme on an aesthetic level, it certainly doesn’t affect the quality of the content. McGrath and Spencer provide an analysis just as detailed and interesting as the likes of Lineker and Lawrenson do in their plush football studios.
After brief introductions from the presenters covering each meeting, the commentators get straight down to business with an overview of the day’s action (including highlights of any races that have already taken place) and any big movers on the betting exchanges. This sets the programme up nicely and keeps the content concise and to the point, although the intros do leave a little to be desired as regards pure entertainment value. In fact this theme runs pretty much throughout the broadcast and it soon becomes clear that if you want shiny montages with uplifting pop songs playing in the background and other artificial atmosphere builders, then this programme is probably not for you. However, rather like the German national football team one thing the coverage cannot be faulted for is its end result – it may not be the prettiest programme but it’s pretty much faultless in all other areas.
Sure enough, only a few minutes elapse after the programme starts before the build up to the first race gets under way and this is where the programme really comes into its own, with every possible angle covered, from interviews with jockeys and trainers, to comment on the chances of each horse and regular updates regarding the latest odds being offered – the flow of comment and analysis only broken by regular advert breaks which provide the viewer with a good opportunity to digest this information and place any bets. Post race there is more analysis, more interviews, replays of key turning points and very brief clips of the presentation ceremony before it’s on to the next race.
The structure remains much the same throughout the programme until it finishes in the same vein as it starts – a review of the day’s results, a preview of upcoming Saturdays and a brief sum-up from one of the presenters. The coverage thrives on simplicity and to end the broadcast the programme designers have come up with a very simple but also very enjoyable idea – replaying the big race of the day while the credits roll. As the credits end, the commentary is turned up as the race reaches its crescendo. In a programme short on unnecessary thrills the designers deserve a pat on the back for coming up with a conclusion to the day’s racing that will no doubt leave the viewer with a smile on their face (or grimace if their horse has lost!) and regardless of the result, wanting more of the same next weekend.
Analysis and Interviews
The area where Channel 4 Racing really excels is in its analysis and interviews. Every runner and rider is covered in each of the day’s races with form, course conditions, weights and numerous other aspects all taken into consideration when the chances of each horse are assessed. These chunks of information are backed up by constant references to latest odds and any significant price movements. There is a big focus on facts as opposed to any emotional aspects (something the BBC has a habit of using a lot in its coverage) and it’s probably fair to say that any punter watching this programme would stand a better chance of winning following this sort of analysis than that of a more mainstream channel.
One major variable that does need to be considered, however, is that man again – John McCririck. You just feel that when he is not part of the programme it lacks something in its preview sections. This may well be because of the other presenters’ reluctance to tip horses. While they give plenty of advice, not even the largest outsider is completely written off by the likes of McGrath and Spencer, who tend to focus instead on the positive aspects of each ride. It is vital that a programme such as this avoids bias towards horses, jockeys and stables but that doesn’t mean you cannot give an opinion and although McCririck is sometimes a little over the top, the programme does seem to be missing something without him.
As far as interviews go it’s hard to fault Channel 4 Racing. While they don’t have the likes of ex-jockey, Willie Carson, carrying out the interviews they do have the respect of the people that really matter – the interviewees. A lot of the interviews with the jockeys take place pre-race on the short walk to the track and, despite minds understandably being elsewhere, responses are not restricted to worn out sporting clichés but often result in genuinely interesting answers. Similarly interviews with owners and trainers are never there simply to fill time but are purposeful and often provide the viewer with a very accurate account of the chance any particular horse stands. This is all the more impressive given the obvious bias this sort of personnel would have towards their horse or horses. In short the programme may not specialise in the celebrity interview but does seem to specialise in that mythical sporting creature – a genuinely informative interview.
Channel 4 Racing is very much the Racing Post of the broadcast world. It is incredibly informative and can help any budding punter beat the bookies (now and again anyway!) Its relevance and entertainment level, however, ultimately depend on the consumer’s knowledge of horse racing and to what extent they enjoy the sport.
If you are still learning the ropes or are looking for a route into racing then the more mainstream BBC coverage is probably a better option, as Channel 4 Racing is not the sort of programme that will explain unfamiliar practices or terminology. It is also not the sort of programme that will fill time with highly polished features or celebrity interviews. However, if you love horse racing and know your stuff to boot then there is no other programme out there that will give you as much quality content or make you feel as close to the world of racing as this one does.
A lot of football fans will tell you that ‘real’ football is not Premiership football and the so called “prawn sandwich’ brigade, but the rough and ready world of lower league football. If the same premise is applied to horse racing then this programme is the equivalent of a mid–November trip to Rochdale. It may not be too pretty to some but to those in the know there are few more beautiful sights in sport.