Life In The Press Room

This week saw my annual visit to the west country, going to Newton Abbot on Tuesday evening and Exeter on Wednesday afternoon.

Both are delightful tracks but there is something about Newton Abbot I really like. A friendly course with good viewing, the racing is never of the highest quality but it is an absolute delight for National Hunt fans.

For me one of the great attractions is racecourse announcer, the delightfully named Ivor Brimblecombe.  He sounds a gentleman of mature years but he always makes me smile.

First of all he has his trademark way of finishing most of his announcements with “that is all” and that never ceases to raise a smile.

However last Tuesday he came up with one of the best announcements I have heard in years.

Those of you who go racing will probably know that flash photography is, understandably, prohibited – especially close to the horses as it can spook them.

I would say at most meetings I attend, especially evening meetings when the light can fade, there is invariably an announcement reminding racegoers that flash photography is prohibited and asking racegoers to refrain from flashing. (I just thought I would spice things up a bit)

Sure enough at Newton Abbot on Tuesday the announcement was made at around the time of the second race. That would, normally, be it.

However two races later Ivor was back to the microphone.

“Earlier on I mentioned about not using flash photography. One of you is still using flash after you were told not too. You will stop doing so immediately. That is all.”

It was brilliant, just like a headmaster telling off a naughty child.

Thinking about verbal traits, it isn’t just the racecourse announcers who have their “trademarks”, commentators do as well.

Stewart Machin used to have at least one mention of “passing the lollypop” in each commentary session, although this is something he has now dropped.

Another one worth watching out for concerns the marmite commentator Tommo …. If you are into spread betting have a few bob on the number of times he says OK when he is commentator. Virtually every time he begins speaking he starts with the expression “OK”.

“OK, they are coming out of the parade ring.”

“OK, they are going down.”

“OK, time to get your bets on.”

You haven’t noticed? Next time you are racing and Tommo is calling have a listen and begin counting.     

Jim McGrath has his Australianisms, then again as he is an Ozzie that is possibly excusable.

Mark Johnson, now also a commentator at Churchill Downs, has less of an excuse for introducing Americanisms into his calls, the most annoying being references to the “clubhouse turn.”

I have to say the verbal tic which annoys me most of all though comes from Ian Bartlett. Now don’t get me wrong I think Ian is one of the most technically competent callers on the circuit, however his inability to say “them” really winds me up. Instead of them he invariably says ‘em.

So instead of saying, for example, “he can’t keep up with them” he will say “he can’t keep up with ‘em” and, for some inexplicable reason, it really irks me.

My current bedtime reading is Get Her Off The Pitch, by Lynne Truss. She of Eats, Shoots and Leaves fame. This isn’t another tome about misuse of grammar, thankfully. This book tells of a brief career as a sports journalist.

In it Horse Racing gets a brief mention and, unsurprisingly, she was not impressed.

She writes, “…. being a surprise female guest of the racing press garnered the sort of reaction you’d get if you turned up to do a striptease in a mosque.”

She went on to say, “I won’t go into how unpleasant it was in the press box, but you can understand why the racing press would have a certain Masonic air.”

I can relate to both her comments. The only female racing correspondent for a national newspaper is the excellent Sue Montgomery of The Independent, although according to the desk sign at Newmarket it is now The Independant and I thought it was The Guarniad which was renowned for its mis-spelling.

There are a few female broadcasters but few actually venture into the press room, probably due to the macho, sexist even, dare I say, boorish attitude of a minority of those who frequent the press room.

Press rooms can be fairly ‘closed” environments and it takes some time to become accepted.

Generally there are three sets of racing press rooms, the Southern, Midlands and Northern circuits and the majority of reporters tend to generally stick to their own regions.

A very few, myself included, tend to go all over the country.

I recall the first time I walked into the press room at Musselburgh I was greeted not with a cheery “hello” but with “who the **** are you?”

Although it has to be said once I told them who the **** I was, the ice was broken and ever since the welcome in the Northern press rooms has been cordial.

The biggest danger of visiting a course and therefore the press room for the first time, is the danger of “stealing” someone’s seat.  I recall my first visit to the Lingfield press room and being the first to arrive I found a seat, out of the way, in the far corner.

I was busily writing an update when I sensed somebody standing behind me, looking over my shoulder. I turned round to find a veteran of the press room (and a regular broadcaster) standing over me and when he caught my eye he asked if I was going to be long.

He went on to inform me he had been sitting in that seat for the past 25 years and his look left no doubt he still wanted to use that seat that afternoon.

I was tempted to comment that after 25 years a change of scenery would do him good – but I chickened out and moved elsewhere.

Ever since, I have always asked when visiting a press room for the first time.

Although I have to confess I am becoming a creature of habit – I now have my favourite seat in the Ascot press room and although I would not cause a scene I would be quietly put out if I arrived to find somebody sitting in “my” seat.  

I suppose press rooms are like most places of work, attracting a cross section of people and our own personality defines who we get on with.

When I first began going into the press rooms I used to find a quiet corner and keep myself to myself. I know some of my colleagues do not think I should be there and do not see the internet as being a “valid” means of news distribution. They do not see me as being a "proper" journalist, even though I have been trained as such and carry a UK Press card.

However over time I think I have now become accepted by most and I have a good working relationship with most.

As in all places of work there are all types. There are some of my press room colleagues whom I have a great deal of time for, who I like very much as individuals as well as professionally.

There have been some people who I have known about through their media work and about whom I have had pre-conceived notions. In most cases my expectations have been correct and they are just as, if not more-so, pleasant in “real life” as they are when on TV or in the public eye.

There have been one or two surprises. One commentator who I always thought as being aloof turns out to be nothing of the sort and he has a very acerbic wit, very rarely failing to make me smile.

Then there is another “marmite” broadcaster whose on-screen persona is almost the exact opposite to his off-screen persona.

Then again, one or two have been disappointments as well.

Of course, as in any workplace, there is always somebody who really spoils it for everybody else and the racing press room is no exception. This individual has nothing good to say about anybody, although it goes without saying he would not dream of telling people to their face what he says about them behind their backs.  Recently he was being particularly boorish and really getting on my nerves and I e-mailed a colleague, who was at another course, saying this chap was really getting on my nerves and if he did not shut up soon I was going to deck him.

His reply said if I did I would then be “the hero of the press room” …. I’m glad it isn’t just me.

I wonder if he was in the press room the day Lynne Truss visited?

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