During 2015 we had the live announcement by AP McCoy of his retirement, emotional scenes at Cheltenham as the Bradstocks ushered in their Gold Cup hero Coneygree, and that compelling footage from Doncaster of the St Leger result being overturned by the stewards.
Now, however, the outlet which brought us such memorable viewing is in its last year of live racing coverage, with ITV securing the rights at the expense of Channel 4, after over 30 unbroken years. A case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater? Time will tell.
Live racing on Channel 4 is, after all, a way of life on Saturday afternoons and festival afternoons for many racing fans. Part of the appeal has been the presenters and panellists used over the years, from the informative to the infuriating, the entertaining to the controversial.
To illustrate such, hundreds of punters packed into the function room at Waterford’s Woodlands Hotel for the Ladbrokes Cheltenham Preview night to hear the views of, among others, C4 anchor Nick Luck, form expert Jim McGrath, ex-jockey Mick Fitzgerald, and John Francome who, after his glittering career in the saddle ended, was there almost from the start.
“Thirty years ago I sat next to Andrew Franklin, the producer for Highflyer [TV company] who asked me if I would like to help out over Boxing Day and the Christmas period and, 27 years later, I was still working for him.”
Four years ago Highflyer lost the Channel 4 contract when it went out to tender and Francome decided himself to finish up, at the same time as the newcomers were disposing of the services of numerous broadcasters including John McCririck, Derek Thompson, Mike Cattermole and Alastair Down, who is now used on an occasional basis.
“Andrew Franklin used to put a montage of pictures together for the two days of the [Cheltenham] open meeting and in two minutes Alastair Down could put the funniest lines to it and did the same every day of the festival.
“A lot of people moaned about John McCririck, but a lot of people miss him now. He was great entertainment, he had an opinion.”
Today, the former champion jockey has little time for the Channel 4 coverage. “If I’m totally honest, I don’t watch it… It just lacked a little bit of spontaneity more than anything. I more or less knew what somebody was going to say before they said it.”
It was a mistake to switch the contract from Andrew Franklin’s Highflyer in 2012, Francome maintains, and he hopes ITV will engage the veteran producer.
“I doubt they will, but I hope they do. What he brings to it is somebody who can produce a live programme and still have the mental agility to be listening to what’s being said on air, while weighing up whether to carry on with something or cut it and be able to say we’ll put the commercial break back five minutes and cut something else.
“He is a television man and he realised television is entertainment. Racing is 90% talking and 10% action so you have got to have something that will keep you entertained and keep you watching.”
He would not go back but fondly remembers his years on the screen. “We had lots of fun times. The great thing about live TV is as soon as you opened your mouth and said it, it’s gone. I interviewed a young flat jockey one day and asked him, ‘have you always been that small?’ Andrew Franklin took great pleasure in reminding me of that.”
Live television is something Nick Luck seems born to do. Watching him front the coverage gives the impression that, should a bomb go off behind his back, he would unblinkingly announce it was time for a betting update from Tanya. His views on the current production are, naturally, somewhat at odds with those of John Francome. “You’d like to think the other people were interested in taking it on because, commercially, the coverage has been very successful for Channel 4,” said Luck.
“People go on about the presenters and editorial but, no matter what channel it’s on, you’re going to watch it if you enjoy watching horses running around a field and you’ve had a bet on.”
Asked about some memorable moments, he doesn’t go back very far. “I think 2015 was an incredible year for Channel 4 racing. The Grand National got nearly nine million viewers and it was a tremendous result and came bang in the middle of two fantastic parts of the Tony McCoy story, having him announcing breaking news of his retirement in February of 2015 and his extraordinarily emotional and dramatic final day at Sandown for Bet365 Gold Cup day.”
He recalls that announcement, made by McCoy during a post-race interview with Rishi Persad at Newbury.
“I knew then I would be doing the interview back [in the winner’s enclosure] with him. He came back to us fairly quickly, then all you’re thinking about is having to source the right people to line up and try and appreciate his entire career, in the next 45 minutes you’ve got left in the programme.”
The phenomenon of having all of the terrestrial coverage on one channel is a recent one and followed the decision by the BBC to pull out of racing after years of coverage.
It was with the BBC Gold Cup and Grand National-winning jockey Mick Fitzgerald began his career front of the camera.
“When I retired I worked for them on their coverage at Epsom and Ascot and did the Arc, then did the odd day for Channel 4 as well,” said Fitzgerald. “When they got the contract in 2012 I had my first day as an official member of the team.”
He remembers the feeling of “almost going into enemy territory” when leaving the weigh-room for the cameras but agrees it was no harm to have a background at the top of the game when it came to broadcasting.
“I know what it feels like to be bad on a fancied one, I know what it feels like to mess up on one that should have won. I also know it’s my job, when someone has given a bad ride, to point it out. I’ve got a job to do. I know there’s times when you’ve made mistakes but there’s a way of saying it.”
Fitzgerald makes no bones of his desire to stay involved. “I’d love to work for ITV, for the same reason I work with Channel 4. Because I love working on the Saturdays that the best races are on. I also work with At The Races and love coming over here [Ireland] for the big meetings, at Leopardstown or Punchestown. People have no idea how nice it is to see people enjoying having big wins. I’m a little bit jealous of them because I know what it feels like.”
ITV was where it all began for Jim McGrath, former president of Timeform who remembers the day when the network had live coverage before Channel 4 even existed.
“The racing coverage used to be regionalised so if you worked with ITV and went to York, you’d work with the production team from Yorkshire Television and then the next weekend if you went to Kempton you’d work with Thames TV. There was no dedicated production team for racing. I remember one of the first broadcasts I did from Beverly and the production assistant spent the whole programme, because we could hear her in our earpieces, talking about what she was going to make for her husband’s dinner.”
The first time he worked with John Francome, he was somewhat in awe.
“We ended up working together for 26 years. We became good friends and still are good friends. He was a hero and here I was working with him.” Another ex-jockey for whom plain-speaking is a way of life is Ted Walsh, who joins the Channel 4 set-up every year for the Cheltenham festival, watching his son Ruby sweep to glory. And, famously, daughter Katie who struck twice in 2010. Ted was always very measured watching Ruby, very proud, but he wouldn’t be hollering,” Jim says.
“But when it was Katie, he basically jumped every fence and every hurdle. When she started to improve on Thousand Stars [County Hurdle] and he had his headphones on, he started kicking the wall and in the end the chair went from under him and the headphones fell off and he fell from his chair.
“We genuinely thought he had been hurt… We were asking him if he was alright and he said, ‘I’m so embarrassed, every Saturday when I’m not working I’m at home with Helen watching the racing and giving out saying he couldn’t ride a chair, and now I’ve fallen off one.’”
From next year it’s up to ITV to forge the memories.