Life In The Press Room - Part One

If I could have a pound for every time someone has said to me “you have a cushy life covering horse racing” I would have been able to “retire” years ago.

If only it was always cushy.

Yes I appreciate the accredited press do have some decent perks like getting free admission and getting to see some of the best racing action there is, sometimes from the best seat in the house, although not always.

There are plenty, far too many, accredited journalists who only come out of the woodwork at the big meetings, who wouldn’t be seen dead at a lesser track on a wet Tuesday afternoon – but that’s a story for another day.

The biggest surprise, when I was first accredited, was to discover we get fed at the racecourses. I use the term ‘fed’ loosely as the quality varies greatly.

I’ve always found it odd that the press should be fed by the courses. It’s the first time I’ve worked anywhere and been supplied with a free lunch on a regular basis. Why shouldn’t racing journalists pay for their lunch like anybody else?

I suppose I could be accused of hypocrisy in criticising the free lunches on the basis I generally avail myself of them but if it’s handed to you on a plate, as it were, you take it don’t you?

I personally would not complain if the free lunches were withdrawn, I have always expected to pay my way.

Having said that there are even occasions where even the free food is so dire I will still go out and buy my lunch elsewhere.

Most courses offer variations on sandwiches, some exceptionally good, some so bad you are risking life, limb and digestive system.

Semi-thawed, previously frozen sandwiches are not unknown.

However the “prize” for the most amazing food must go to Leicester a couple of years ago. The lady who makes the sandwiches was “with child” and was clearly having food cravings as the contents of the sandwiches were clearly reflective of her cravings and contained every possible surreal combination you could think of.

At the end of every meeting the number of sandwiches remaining was exactly the same as when we started. Luckily at Leicester there is an excellent Aberdeen Angus Hot beef stall which many of us still use in preference to the sandwiches.

Some courses give vouchers to use in the course cafés which are handy and others provide some decent hot meals.

Of the so called smaller courses by far the best is Southwell, whose chef produces some really wholesome, tasty hot food and the food always varies.

Top for feeding  has to be Ascot where the food on offer would be quite acceptable at any decent restaurant.

The best ever there was at a Shergar Cup meeting, where the chef produced a hot buffet with food items representing the nations of all the various competing riders – it was worth going for the food alone.

If I’m going to be slightly churlish about the Ascot food then it relates to the same menu being available each meeting, so by day five of Royal Ascot, the menu becomes, dare I say, a tad boring, to the extent I’m even going out to purchase the overpriced offerings on sale to the paying punters.

Food is only one aspect of working at the course, the other is the press rooms themselves and, boy do they vary, from the sublime to the absolute ridiculous.

Ascot has both. The main press room is one of the best in the country, decent workspace, plenty of televisions and a viewing balcony with excellent viewing of the racecourse. By contrast the media centre under the grandstand, where us lesser mortals are sent during the Royal meeting, would give the black hole of Calcutta a run for its money. Windowless and cramped it has TV screens but no means of recording the racing, it is really a depressing place to work.

You would think press rooms would be provided so the press can actually watch the racing, don’t you believe it.

The Aintree media centre is behind the stands with no viewing of the racing although a viewing area is provided on the roof of the County Stand.  Bangor and  Bath have small rooms with no viewing of the racing. Beverley had a larger room but again no viewing of the racing. Whilst at Carlisle the press are consigned to an area behind the parade ring.

Like Carlisle, Ffos Las have the press as far away from the action as possible, similarly Hamilton.

Musselburgh operate a similar dungeon system to the Ascot media centre with a windowless room in the bowels of the grandstand, whilst Perth is another with a press room behind the stands along with Stratford, a press room that is so insecure we have to chain out laptops to our desks and try and ensure the press room is never left unattended.  

Wetherby is another press room where you cannot see the racing along with Yarmouth.

On the other hand some press rooms are sublime.

Take Epsom, for example, the room itself is basic but its situation, on the roof of the Queens Stand affords one of the best views in racing.

When it is peeing with rain the press rooms at Newcastle, Market Rasen and, to a lesser extent, Doncaster  are a delight as they a) overlook their respective parade rings and b) you can view the racing  without having to go outside into the wet.

The most “infamous” press room has to be Fakenham’s. Located at the top of the steppings it runs along about 1/3 of the stand so it looks quite big, however its front wall is no more than three feet from the back wall, so if you sit down nobody can move past you. Intimate is the kindest description I have heard to describe it. Although you can, at least, see the racing.

One course worthy of a special mention is Catterick, whose press room provides an individual television at every seat.

I can’t talk about press rooms without touching on the most controversial point of all – wi-fi.

Gone are the days when journalists used to phone copy through to copy takers back in the office. Now coverage is increasingly web-oriented and that needs instant access, something many courses seeming have failed to embrace.

I’ve lost count of the number of courses who have picked up a cheap router from their local computer store, thinking the same router that works well at home will also suit the needs of a racecourse.    

Some courses, especially those part of Arc and Jockey Club and courses like Ascot have professional IT teams and provided a generally robust IT infrastructure.

With some of the smaller courses it is woeful. I won’t name it but at one course the 17 year old nephew of the managing director is in charge of IT provision.

At others the press have to share bandwith with the in-running backers so every time an “away” meeting goes off the press access slows to a crawl.

Some of the more computer savvy users of the press room now turn up with, at least, a 3G dongle as back-up in case the wi-fi does not work. I turn up with four alternative means of getting on-line but even I can get defeated on occasion.

A few times I have helped the Racing Post reporters or race readers gain access to submit their copy, depending on who the individual is. I have to admit with a couple of them I happily leave them to flounder.

There was a case last week when the “Live Reporter” was having major issues getting online and connected and he was on the phone to the RP tech support guys trying to resolve the issue. It was a problem, with my IT background,  I could have fixed in less than five minutes and had it been any other of the reporters I would have offered to help  – in this case I have to admit it was thoroughly enjoyable watching him get more and more frustrated as the afternoon progressed.

More on the press room characters in part two.

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