Those of us who watch racing from the privileged position of the press room sometimes forget how fortunate we are.
Notwithstanding the thrill of being present at the race meeting there is also the additional access which comes with having the coveted press badge.
Access to the key players, a chance to get up close to the magnificent horses. The chance to see the special bond that exists between the handlers and their horses.
It is something to so easily take for granted and something I appreciated all the more last week.
For me Cheltenham is the highlight of the racing year, it is a meeting I love attending. Yes it can be crowded, especially on the Friday but the atmosphere is something really special, something intangible.
The racing is invariably of a high standard, there is no such thing as a non-trier at The Festival and the feeling, the “I was there” feeling when something special happens is something money cannot buy.
I was there when Big Bucks won his third World Hurdle, I was there when Master Minded destroyed the field, I was there when Denman won his Gold Cup and when Kauto Star regained his title – so many memories.
This year was different – due to illness I couldn’t make it to Gloucestershire and I had to settle for watching the Festival from the “comfort” of my armchair.
Let me tell you it was not the same.
It was an enlightening experience, more so following the confirmation today that Channel Four will have exclusive terrestrial television rights to the festival from 2013.
Let’s deal with the irritations first and they have to be focused on the advertisements. I appreciate Channel Four is a commercial broadcaster and paradoxically it is the deregulation of bookmakers advertising which has provided the income to allow Channel Four to bid for the exclusive terrestrial rights.
However the advertisements are a major distraction – in particular the Paddy Power adverts which seemed to top and tail almost every commercial break. These are meant to be humorous advertisements, that in itself is debatable, but when exactly the same advertisement is shown at the beginning and end of every commercial break it quickly becomes a major irritation.
The sort of irritation which will put off the casual, once a year, viewer when Channel Four picks up the crown jewels.
Then we had the advertisements where the Channel Four pictures continued to be shown as a picture in picture – does this imply an endorsement by Channel Four?
The answer is probably not but it could easily be perceived to be that way.
Finally there was the bookmaker advertisement, shown throughout the week, whereby one of the Channel Four team were endorsing a bookmaker whilst he was appearing in the program during which the advertisement was screened. Surely that cannot be right?
Notwithstanding the advertising, a necessary evil, the program itself was just about OK.
Sure enough individual presenters can evoke different reactions in different people and it is wrong to judge a program on personal preferences for individual presenters.
What I did find particularly impressive was some of the background features.
The Kauto Star story with Simon Holt chatting to Paul Nicholls, shown over all four days, was excellent.
I really enjoyed the interview with Trevor Hemmings but the icing on the cake was the chat with racings “odd couple” Hen Knight and Terry Biddlecombe.
Presented a tribute to Best Mate the interview also showed something of the relationship between the most unlikely couple, not only in racing but anywhere. It was a lovely insert into the program without being overly sentimental.
Turning to the racing coverage itself there was coverage of the horses in the parade ring but there could have been more. Although it should be noted in a couple of races they did not have time to get through all the runners.
The paddock commentary wasn’t exactly informative, more a rehash of form figures. I would prefer the paddock analysis to come from seasoned paddock observers.
Coverage of the races was my biggest complaint though.
There were too many crowd shots as the runners circled at the start. Indeed, the start of a couple of races was missed as the cameras were showing irrelevant scene setters.
Channel Four relied on Simon Holt for their commentary but I think it is too much to ask one commentator to call all the races at a meeting this size.
Indeed I’m sure even Simon himself, usually the most reliable of callers, will admit the Cross Country was not his finest ever call.
It would be better if Simon was added to the on-course commentary team and Channel Four then took the course feed.
If they are to take the course commentary they should also take the Racetech course pictures as well. Arty shots are all well and good but there was too much focus on the “big names” rather than showing the race develop.
By all means have the arty shots, the close ups, but save them for the replays, not the race itself.
I don’t want a close up of Big Bucks – I want to see the race developing.
When the race is over we then have to endure the immediate post race interview.
What purpose does it serve?
If I was the owner I would not want my rider debriefing the media before he had debriefed me.
What do the broadcasters expect from these interviews?
Of the 20 races shown by Channel Four the only immediate post race interview with a rider I found insightful was the one with AP McCoy after winning the Gold Cup. That’s a pretty poor percentage.
What the coverage did not do, indeed in fairness it cannot do, is give a real feeling of what the atmosphere is like at Cheltenham.
Earlier on I was critical of Simon’s call of the Cross Country race, to redress the balance his call of the Gold Cup was sublime and it was the nearest Channel Four came all week to properly convey that special Cheltenham atmosphere.
Moving on Channel Four should seize the chance to revamp its coverage of the sport.
For what it’s worth my “dream team” of presenters would be as follows.
Clare Balding and Nick Luck, the two best in the
business by a country mile. Appreciating they cannot cover every week
I would have a “reserve” team of Richard Hoiles, Stewart Machin, Lydia
Hislop and Alastair Down
Personally I think form experts are a waste of time, if people want form then they can by a Racing Post and read the Spotlights (other form sources are available)
Much more coverage of runners in the paddock is
required and, as importantly, analysis of how the runners look whilst
parading. For me David Cleary and Ken Pitterson are the two best
paddock observers in the business.
There is no need for a betting reporter, yet
alone two. All that is required a sidebar or screen scroll which can
graphically display betting and betting moves.
Just use the on-course commentary, having separate commentators just for TV is an unnecessary expense.