Come January 2017 those who like to watch racing on terrestrial television will have to tune to ITV. That is when the baton is handed over by Channel 4 Racing and the professional production team at IMG.
Things will be confusing at first. Not least because ITV Sport intends to show the prominent meetings on ITV1 and some other race meetings on a channel more associated with repeats of The Sweeney and Minder. Fans of those two vintage dramas are expected to complain in their tens!
Head of Sport at ITV is Niall Sloane. A one time aspiring footballer with Sheffield Wednesday (and supporter of the Owls ever since), he is vastly experienced when it comes to producing sport on TV.
I am surprised, therefore, that the first name on my team sheet is not on his. At the time of writing the retired champion jump jockey Tony McCoy has not been approached to be part of the ITV Racing presentation team. A gross oversight in my opinion. After all, Channel 4 Racing groomed him as a co-presenter, an incisive, informative and witty contributor to their coverage. They’ve done the hard work. All ITV need do is give him a role when they launch their new service.
McCoy is big friends with the man who will front the ITV coverage. He and Ed Chamberlin have been mates for years and I would have thought they would make an ideal double act.
AP McCoy told The Guardian newspaper: “Claire (Burns), who looks after me, talked with them (ITV) a while ago but I haven’t heard any more.
“They seem to have announced their presenters and I wish them the best of luck and hope they do well.
“It’s going to be a hard thing for them to keep everyone happy. One thing they need to cater for is the older audience. I’m not sure about just bringing in a lot of young people, because racing has an older audience.
“I’d like to think that they’ll do a good job for racing, and that when I put the racing on, on a Saturday afternoon, I can watch it and enjoy it.
“It’s very hard to say there was an awful lot wrong with Channel 4 but now ITV has got it I hope they do the best for racing.”
Those are interesting comments regarding age. Those who run and promote the sport appear obsessed with enticing the young to go racing. They care little if the young are attending to watch the racing. Supping the beer or watching a music act perform after the race meeting adds figures to the attendance and allows racing to suggest there is an inexorable rise in spectators.
But when I walk around racecourses I see that the majority of the young are in the bars, oblivious to the fact that there are thoroughbred racehorses in the vicinity. The age group watching the racing, cheering on the horses, and using on course bookies tend to be between 35 and 65.
This is a problem that racing has failed to acknowledge, let alone conquer.
You have to attract the next generation of racing fan without losing those steeped in the sport. People like me. Those who grew up watching racing when it was a fixture on BBC ‘Grandstand’. A generation who admired Lester Piggott and loved watching horses such as Arkle, Nijinsky or Brigadier Gerard.
The main tool used to attract youngsters has been betting. But this group tend simply to use the sport as another means to punt. Many of them never watch the race that carries their money. They couldn’t recognise the horse in an identity parade.
If ITV Sport tries to take the coverage downmarket and appeal to the ‘Yoof’, this by then 58 year old will be switching off. By its very nature ITV should attract more viewers to racing than Channel 4. But that’s more to do with their place ‘on the dial’ and tradition. It is not a reflection on how Channel 4 Racing tried to cover the sport with the respect it warrants.
I’d be amazed if the viewing figures continue to fall (as they were doing on the BBC before Channel 4 took over). If the figures plummet again then, sadly, it’s time to admit that there are not enough people like me left to fight the good fight. People who believe all major sports, including racing, should by right be available to view on free-to-air TV.
When hiring a presentation team you are looking for knowledge, experience an on screen presence and looks. It is, after all, a visual medium. Any TV boss who says how a presenter looks does not come into the equation is being economical with the truth. My last boss at Sky Sports News once told a newspaper that he does not hire presenters for that channel based on their looks. (In other news, I once slept with Beyonce and Penelope Cruz. At the same time!)
Although you cannot openly use the phrase in these politically correct times, the phrase ‘eye candy’ is still whispered in the corridors of broadcasting power. This remains an area of the industry dominated by men.
It would be insulting to suggest that Francesca Cumani, daughter of Newmarket trainer, Luca, has been hired to work for ITV Racing purely because of her looks. I’ve watched her grow as a presenter of CNN’s programme ‘Winning Post’ and its Spanish cousin, ‘Al Galope.’ While she’s not the finished article, she’s good and I expect that she’ll be to the liking of most ITV viewers.
My one time Sky Sports colleague Ed Chamberlin is as professional as they come. Some ill informed commentators have questioned why ITV Sport hired as the chief presenter a man more known for presenting live football games on Sky. It’s because Ed loves his racing, knows his racing and is accepted and trusted by many in the sport.
I was surprised that Ed jumped ship from the secure role he had at Sky Sports. Lots of people never leave Sky because of the money on offer and the perceived security of tenure (though the latter has not been the case for off screen staff in more recent times).
Ed Chamberlin has taken a chance on ITV racing succeeding. True, if at the end of the broadcasters four year contract things have not worked out, Ed will likely be that rare beast and be welcomed back at Sky Sports – a department no longer victim of a ‘you leave here and there’s no way back’ policy.
Ed Chamberlin is a top guy, a very good presenter and if ITV Racing flops I guarantee it will not be down to him.
Only this week it was announced that the Grand National and Gold Cup-winning rider Mick Fitzgerald will make the move from Channel 4 to ITV. That led to some expressions of surprise on Twitter. Clearly not everyone is a fan of ‘Fitz.’ I happen to think he has grown into the role of presenting and his on screen presence is fine by me. I’m only surprised that he’s been hired by ITV and his great friend, AP McCoy, has not. The pair work well together.
The absence of long serving betting expert Tanya Stevenson is also a mistake. While the shy Tanya never fully overcame her nerves on camera and was liable to fluff her lines from time to time, what she doesn’t know about the betting industry you could fit on the back of a postage stamp. I hope Tanya finds lucrative employment elsewhere and that we punters will be able to access her knowledge.
The appointment that did take me by surprise was that of the former flat jockey, Hayley Turner. It is the case that Hayley has a great sense of humour and can be very witty, but it remains to be seen if she has the gravitas I would want from an on screen contributor.
Sally Ann Grassick is no stranger to viewers of Irish racing. I have seen too little of her output to comment on her ability. But, as the son of a Irishman whose roots were steeped in all things equine, I’m pleased that someone with specific knowledge of Irish racing will be part of the new look team.
I hope that Alice Plunkett is employed during the National Hunt season. Jockeys trust her implicitly and she knows as much about the mental and physical make up of thoroughbreds as any of the competing jockeys she interviews on Channel 4.
I am delighted to read that the experienced Rishi Persad is making the move from Channel 4 to ITV. An all rounder, Rishi not only knows his racing and racing people. He knows how to broadcast, asks sensible questions of returning jockeys and knows how to deal with the unexpected. He was the man taken by surprise when AP McCoy announced his retirement live on air. Rishi had no warning of what McCoy was about to say and handled the breaking news with aplomb.
I do wonder where knowledge of the pedigree and breeding of the horses will come from. I am far from alone as a punter in placing a great level of faith in both and few know more about the pedigree of racehorses than another very experienced broadcaster, Jim McGrath. His absence from ITV Racing will be the clearest indication that the broadcaster has decided to significantly reduce the average age of the presentation team. Without McGrath, the coverage is in danger of being less about facts and more about froth.
There is no news as to whether the admirable Graham Cunningham is moving to ITV. If ITV Sport ever expect to ask serious, searing questions of those in charge of the sport, then Cunningham is the man to do it. But I fear ITV Sport will not be rushing to rattle the cage of the British Horseracing Authority. Had the broadcaster planned to ask difficult questions of those in the sport they would have hired the brilliant Lydia Hislop.
In the land of social media people are all to quick to judge a new television show or the changes made to an existing one. But live broadcasting of sport requires more patience. It is wrong to judge a new service in the first days or weeks. As I said when Channel 4 Racing began broadcasting, you should leave it a year before deciding if a new broadcaster has improved the output.
ITV Sport has yet to finalise its presentation team for racing. Further announcements can be expected. But remember this. As Rishi Persad told me on camera, people don’t turn on to watch a sport because of who is presenting it. They turn on if the sport itself is attractive. (A longer version of that interview with Rishi and Nick Luck is available on YouTube)
The fall in viewing figures of racing during the latter days of its coverage on the BBC, and at certain times on Channel 4, was not the fault of the production teams working on that output.
Racing hides behind statistics that more people are attending the high profile racing fixtures, while conveniently failing to mention that the multitude of crap race meetings it serves up the rest of the year are watched by sparse crowds.
That’s not the fault of whichever broadcaster transmits the sport on terrestrial television. It’s the greed and avarice of those who dictate how the sport is run. And that very much includes the online, off shore bookmakers.