Clare Balding, ballet and the blindingly obvious

Clare Balding, ballet and the blindingly obvious

clare at ascot

Clare Balding is a very good presenter of television, especially live TV. I should know. During a 25 year career producing for ITV, BBC, C4 and SKY; forgive me, but I know a good presenter when I see one. I have sung her praises on here often. She doesn’t need little old me to defend her. And, when it comes to her latest career choice, I find it hard to do so.

Balding steers clear of the Grand National

She has chosen to present the Boat Race rather than the Grand National. To my mind, that is akin to AP McCoy choosing to ride on the all weather at Southwell rather than at the Cheltenham Festival.

You cannot accuse her of chasing viewing figures. Not with this decision, at least. She has spurned the most watched horse race in the world for a mickey mouse event on the river. I am a traditionalist. I want the Boat Race to survive and to be on free to air TV. Barry Davies should be fronting the televised event. He knows plenty about the event, his son having competed in it. The Boat Race, and its audience, lend themselves to a commentator or presenter who is in the senior years of his or her television career. Not one in the prime of her life.

Clare Balding has opted to be along the River Thames and not at Aintree because of the other Boat Race. On Saturday April 11, she will present not only the Boat Race you are used to, the one in which the fit men of Oxford and Cambridge row their boats down the river. But, thirty five minutes after the Aintree Grand National has started, the first Women’s Boat Race is to be shown on television. And that’s why Clare has chosen London over Liverpool.

She says: “I knew I couldn’t do the Grand National because of the Boat Race. I have not been quiet about my commitment to women’s sport and next year will be a really historic moment because the Women’s Boat Race will be on TV for the very first time. I would have liked to do both events, but whereas I’ve covered the last twenty one Grand Nationals I’ve never covered the Women’s Boat Race. I felt I couldn’t say all I say about women in sport and then not be there that first time the women are on the tideway.”

I would say that, regardless of who is doing the steering, the Boat Race is such a minority sporting event it makes racing look like the crown jewel of sporting television which, sadly, it no longer is.

Racing was once the backbone of BBC Sport on a Saturday. For decades, it ensured ‘Grandstand’ was the mainstay of televised sport. Then the BBC decided they couldn’t afford to cover racing any longer. That was just before they spent millions on covering the London Olympics, a one off event that made Ms. Balding a superstar of sports broadcasting. She thought that those within the industry who congratulated her on how she presented the Olympics, would be fickle. She says: “I had no idea what the impact of London 2012 was going to be. You tend to think you’re going to be flavour of the month for no more than a month. I really did think it would fizzle out. But it hasn’t.

“People in business say you should work a maximum of around 225 days a year. If I can come down to anything like that it will feel like I’m having six months off. At the moment I’m probably working about 320 days a year. I can do that but it doesn’t mean I should do that.”

No, Clare, you shouldn’t.

Back in the day, I once asked Chris Tarrant why he did everything that came his way. Why did he never say a polite “no thanks” to the offer of work, be it on radio, television or a commercial. “Because Vernon, one day the telephone will stop ringing.”

Chris influenced my friend and colleague Carol Vorderman. She chose what I labelled the ‘Carol Smillie’ path of broadcasting. Namely, do anything and everything. Appear on the TV so often that the public would get sick of seeing your face, no matter how pretty it was. ‘Vorders’ had the same reasoning as Chris. Do it while they want you because, one day, they’ll be calling a younger model instead. As television executives usually do (in front of and behind of camera).

In short, I call it: “Coin it in while you can.” And I don’t blame those who have chosen that path.

Balding says: “The same people who have criticised me for doing too much will now criticise me for this as well. That’s life, but it’s not their life. It’s mine.”

And I cannot argue with that. As a long term self employed person I stand up for all freelancers. We are a threatened race. Clare is entitled to take the jobs she wishes to take. She is fortunate to be spoilt for choice, but she’s earned that right through sheer hard work. And she’s done that while battling illness. I salute her energy levels.

My argument is that she should have quit Channel 4 Racing altogether. You’r either a team player or you’re not. Cherry picking the Cheltenham Festival and Royal Ascot is not on.

She has said: “I have enormous respect for the Channel 4 Racing team. They’re great and I love them. No matter what formation the individual members get played in, it’s a really strong team. I have too much respect for the members of that team, and too much respect for racing, to just land on the sport for the odd Saturday here and there. For that reason I’ll do Cheltenham and Ascot and then we’ll see.

“The other option was to not do any racing at all next year. That’s what I was leaning towards.”

I wish she had kept leaning.

And do I worry when anyone working in TV says they “love” their colleagues. I long worked in the cut throat world of broadcast television and that comment always had a hollow ring about it. It’s up there with the boss who so often says: “My door is always open.”

I have never worked with Clare. I never shall. I have never met her, so my assumptions could be very wrong. It has been known.

All those I speak to who have worked with her say, as I do from a distance, that she is very professional. But some of those people also say she has the air of someone who has to be number one. She wants the viewer to be under no misunderstanding. She is the main presenter. She is head girl, not a co-presenter.

She wouldn’t be the first to think like that. I’ve worked with famous presenters whose way of ensuring they are top dog was to reduce their co-presenter to tears. Or to ‘accidentally’ read the links scripted for their colleague.

I feel sure Clare will have congratulated the regular front person for Channel 4 Racing, the ever improving Nick Luck, on his recent and deserved Broadcaster of the Year award. I expect she would be very gracious in such circumstances. But then go home and spit feathers!

The very best presenters are the most self assured. It comes with experience and proven ability. They all have their moments. Times when they demand this and demand that. They are all riddled with insecurity and go through a phase when “Sorry, no, I can’t do that job. I simply don’t have the time…” are the words they refuse to utter.

But, thereafter, the real masters of broadcasting get to the point where they don’t need to shout and scream at colleagues. They don’t need to blame underlings for their own failings. They are so good and so comfortable at their jobs that they can take mishap, mistakes and the cock ups of colleagues in their stride.

Clare Balding may well reach that point sooner rather than later. Five years from now she may be the doyenne of sports broadcasting. Or she may suffer burn out. What she must avoid is appearing on a show entitled: ‘Where Are They Now?’ Not as the presenter, but as a guest.

The most baffling comment from Clare Balding last week saw me grow quite angry and I’ve had to calm down before writing this post.

She said: “I just don’t have enough time to do the job well – and I don’t want to do it unless I can do it well. Presenting racing these days is a full-time job. It’s very hard to dip in and out and I’ve found it increasingly difficult to do that.”

But dipping in and out is what you have opted to do. You have picked high profile meetings at Cheltenham and Ascot because you can fit them into your hectic schedule. Surely, if by your own admittance you are working too much, then all the programmes you are presenting are in danger of suffering from you not having “enough time to do the job well.”

Will I miss Clare on Channel 4 Racing? No. Will their viewing figures drop as a result of her going missing? I doubt it. Perhaps C4 once employed a focus group that convinced the powers that be they needed her. They don’t. The truth (a truth always rejected by presenters) is that most viewers couldn’t even tell you the name of the presenter and very, very few watch a programme purely because of the person who faces camera.

What would I have done now had I been in charge at Channel 4? I would have simply said: “Thanks for all you’ve done Clare, but if you are only willing to commit to nine days of presenting for us in 2015, we’d rather call it a day.”

I cannot help but feel Clare is acting like I do when it comes to betting in a big field handicap. Picking more than one option. She is hedging her bets. She didn’t want to cut all her ties with racing on TV because one day, when the telephone rings less often, she can ride back in and, as she might see it, save the free-to-air live broadcasting of horse racing from extinction.

Who knows? Perhaps in choosing coverage of the Boat Race she has chosen the proven stayer of terrestrial sports broadcasting? In which case, we’ve all been sold down the river.

Don’t let the sun go down on jumps racing

plumpton sunny

On Saturday, trainer David Bridgwater was speaking on the Channel 4 show ‘The Morning Line’. He was asked about the current controversy surrounding the exclusion of fences at racecourses, due to a setting sun.

His reply was: “How does anyone know if a horse can’t see a fence because of the sun?”

Fair point, David. We’ve seen some fatal falls of late, but I am not aware any of them occurred due to a horse being blinded by the light.

Some jockeys have said they cannot see a fence for the setting winter sun. It has led to fences being excluded, almost always on a Saturday. Is a setting sun brighter at the weekend? Has the sun not always set during racing in winter? Those were rhetorical questions!

All car drivers know what a potential danger the last rays of the day can be. But jumps racing in winter is in danger of being diluted. It’s jumps racing without jumping. I call that the flat!

Trainers prepare their horses for a specific type of race. To jump fences or hurdles in a particular way, and they enter them for specific races in the expectation their horse will win such a race. That the pace and the space between fences will suit their horse. More and more, often just before the race is due to start, stewards at various courses decide that a setting sun might blind horse and jockey and they exclude a fence or two from being jumped.

At Doncaster, on Saturday, there was a meeting that thankfully survived the frost due to a third and late course inspection. That was the good news. But a novices’ chase race late in the day saw numerous fences taken out of action. It changed the make up of the race. I’m not talking through my pocket because I had backed the winner long before the sun took its hat off. But I do feel for those who work so hard to prepare a horse for a particular type of race, only for the goalposts to be moved at the last minute.

And punters, as always, can get shafted. We are the forgotten breed. A backbone of racing. Where would the sport be without us? Fecked!

Those who take time to study form, place their bets based on what they believe a certain horse can achieve over fences. Then they sit back and watch as that race has a makeover. One that does not favour the horse they have backed.

Other than me I know of another clever and profitable punter living in Spain. His name is Tony Coleman and, following yesterday’s turn of events in South Yorkshire, he tweeted: “Having backed a slick jumping novice this morning in that mockery of a novice chase at Doncaster, who do I write to in order to get a refund?”

Drop the stewards at Donny a line, Tony. Perhaps they will offer you a free race card next time you are there. Or half a bitter. Then again, perhaps not.

I hate to see horses fall. I look away each time I see it happen, be it live or on TV. At Lingfield recently I saw a horse suffer a fatal fall right in front of me. It was the chief image that stayed with me all day and is still etched on my memory, I wish it wasn’t. But the sun wasn’t to blame. Horses fall and, once in a while die, on rainy days and Mondays. They die when racing on the flat. They suffer fatal injuries when running around a field at home.

I’m all for making the sport safe for jockey and horse. But it’s in danger of becoming sterile. And if you think that will attract more new customers than it drives away longer term aficionados of National Hunt racing, it’s time you removed those sunglasses.

Dive! Dive! Dive!

It’s what they used to shout on ‘Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea’ (iPod generation…look it up on Google!)

Now the phrase could be the tagline for the Premier League. There is little point naming names or pointing the finger at one particular play acting footballer. Many of them do it.

There was an Everton player the other week whose simulation was so bad it came close the worst ever (in my opinion). That performed by Gordon Watson. When playing for my team Sheffield Wednesday, in a game covered live by ITV, Gordon conned a referee into believing he had been fouled in the penalty area by an opposing player from Leeds United.

Here is the most ridiculous, penalty winning dive known to man.

I have only just stopped laughing and Gordon, poor lad, is constantly reminded of it. No matter that he scored goals for the Owls and for other clubs such as Southampton and Bradford City; he’s remembered for that one dive.

Today it is commonplace. It is a disgrace and sets such a bad example to the children who are watching. Whether we like to admit it or not, they are influenced by what the professional players do on the pitch.

There is a simple solution. Do not show them a yellow card. If a referee believes a player has dived, show them a red card. Send them off straight away. That’ll put a stop to what Hull City manager Steve Bruce described this weekend as the actions of “something out of Swan Lake.”

Yes, refs will get some of those decisions wrong. Just as they do when flashing a yellow card at the accused. But such a red card could be rescinded should video evidence prove the player was indeed fouled.

But for the guilty ones, those who have clearly cheated, make them dive from the top board at an Olympic pool. Let’s see how balletic they are then.

**

Vernon Grant

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