It isn’t very often the world of racecourse commentating makes the Racing Post news pages, usually it happens on one of those very rare occasions when some poor caller mis-identifies a runner and some mug in-running punter burns his fingers.
However the 2012 commentator’s rota seems to be steeped in controversy.
First of all it was announced all three of the 2011 “trainees” would have 15 days commentating in the first half of 2012, as a trial.
Now that does seem to be a departure with tradition as normally a yes / no decision is made at the end of the year.
Of the 2010 trainees, only the exceptionally good David Fitzgerald was given a place on the rota in 2011, despite there being three” vacancies” following the death of Doug Fraser and the “retirements” of Dave Smith and Graham Goode.
However even more surprising is the news that four of the existing commentators are going to be on a six month reviews in the first half of 2012.
Now it’s clear the powers that be wanted to keep this news quiet but they did not count on veteran commentator Jim McGrath venting his spleen on the pages of the Racing Post.
With Jim blowing the gaff, as it were, it was inevitable the names of the other three would come to light and soon the names of Darren Owen, Iain MacKenzie and Derek Thompson were in the public domain.
Now those who have made this decision about reviewing the commentators have obviously had their cages rattled as it has been reported that they have warned any commentator talking to the press about the matter will have his contract terminated immediately. That seems rather Stalinist and it strikes me as being a tacit admission they have screwed up, which indeed they have.
Mindful of the threat of instant termination for the commentators concerned I am going to have to be circumspect in what I write here.
However it is my belief, and the belief of many of my press room colleagues, that the four commentators have been treated appallingly.
The manner and timing of their notification beggars belief. They were warned by letter they may be reviewed and were told they would be notified of the final decision by phone, just before Christmas as well. Merry Christmas lads!!!
They have been told their performance is being reviewed yet they have not been told what they have supposedly doing wrong or are not doing correctly or what is required to achieve the right standard. That surely cannot be right?
They are effectively saying, "We don't like what you are doing but we won't tell you what you are doing wrong."
All four are long serving members of the commentary team and for them to be treated in this way is an absolute disgrace, whether their performance justifies monitoring or not.
Jim McGrath as well as being a racecourse commentator is BBC televisions lead commentator and I believe that role may not have helped his cause. I think it is universally accepted that when he came to the UK in the mid-eighties he was a breath of fresh air and his commentaries were excellent and refreshing.
He joined the BBC in 1993 as No 2 to the legendry Sir Peter O’Sullevan and it was no surprise he replaced Sir Peter as the senior BBC commentator.
However upon taking up the BBC role he stopped doing on-course commentating. Initially this wasn’t a major problem but as the BBC racing coverage diminished he was increasingly missing out on “match practice” as it were and eventually re-joined the rota. However since his return he has never had the same edge to his calling as he had previously and, arguably, he has paid the price for not continually commentating over that period.
Derek Thompson is very much a Marmite ™ character yet he is very popular with the courses, especially when they hold family days. He is a standing dish at Newmarket’s Friday evening music race nights and is a regular caller at Yarmouth, Fakenham and Musselburgh amongst others.
He was summed up by Musselburgh chief executive Bill Farnworth, who told the Racing Post “Just as you have horses for courses you have commentators for courses and Tommo definitely has a place among the commentating team.
“Musselburgh and Derek have a close relationship and he seems to go down well with the crowd. He might not be the right person to call the Derby but for many of our days he is spot on."
Should Tommo be dropped from the commentators rota I have no doubt many courses will still use him as their on-course commentator to the exclusion of the "official" Racetech caller.
Indeed the courses may well be happier with that approach as Tommo would not be constrained by the Racetech rules (which he does already ignore on occasion and could possibly be the reason for him being "reviewed" - although that is just conjecture on my part.)
Before turning to Iain MacKenzie I should perhaps “declare an interest”.
It is no secret in the press room that Mr MacKenzie and I are not the best of buddies and are certainly not on one another’s Christmas Card list. I’m still not totally sure how the animosity started and it is unfortunate, but it’s one of those things.
However, I have to say, whatever differences we may have had in the past his inclusion on the review list is as manifestly wrong as it is in the other cases.
He restricts his commentating to National Hunt only but I cannot think that is a reason for including him in the review.
He has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the National Hunt scene and I don’t think there is another person with a greater knowledge of the point-to-point scene. (He also, apparently, totally dislikes Christmas – so there is, at least, one thing we have in common).
I cannot recall any major cock-ups in his commentaries recently, although the term cock-up may possibly be a reason for his inclusion. At a meeting at Folkestone earlier this year an unfortunate rider pulled up a circuit too soon and MacKenzie actually referred to it as a “cock-up” during commentary.
Personally I though it to be an honest summation but I wonder if that got him a black mark with the powers that be?
The fourth member of the list is the most bemusing to me.
The inclusion of Darren Owen has to be one of the most perverse decisions I have heard in a long time, even the BHA could not make such a crass, stupid decision.
Darren is a perfectly capable, technically competent, good, what I would call "safe" commentator. That his performance should be under any sort of review absolutely beggars belief.
So why has this happened?
I think there is a big clue in the fixtures being allocated to the three new commentators. All three are being given commentary slots at ATR courses.
A strange decision but it underlines something I have heard through the grapevine that there is a great deal of political (no pun intended) horse trading going on between the ATR / SIS and RUK / Turf TV camps on the committee which appoints commentators.
I have been told RUK/Turf TV are unhappy with what they seen as a strong bias towards “ATR people” on the commentary rota.
If this is true and I have no reason to doubt my multiple sources, then it is a disgrace that Messer’s McGrath, Thompson, MacKenzie and Owen are being used as pawns in this particularly nasty “game”.