Grenville Davies looks back on horseracing broadcasting over the last five decades.
Like a lot of kids back in the 1970's, I watched my parents pick their selections from the morning paper on a Saturday, many of those picked; whether by pin, having a fanciful name or some more scientific method would go on to form part of their bets in the ITV 7 (which was an accumulator with bonuses, and consolations for only getting 6 winners). In the 70's and 80's it formed not just the flesh but also the bones of ITV's flagship sports programme World of Sport. The ITV 7 gave armchair viewers the chance to be acquainted with the likes of Newmarket, Epsom and York along with the likes of Towcester, Nottingham and Catterick.
Indeed Catterick had the distinction of holding the run-off for the worse racehorse in the country according to Brough Scott, as horses took part in a selling race on ITV, most of whom were not fast enough to catch a cold. Whilst in 1971, Nottingham had the honour of hosting the culmination of a long-running media circus. For the previous four days they had followed National Hunt Jockey Stan Mellor around the country, in his quest to be the first jump jockey to reach a thousand winners. He achieved the feat on Ouzo and then made it 1001 by two races later.
The BBC's equivalent to the ITV 7 was the BBC Triella - where you did not just have to pick the winner of three televised races on the Beeb but the second as well, it didn't quite have same headline grabbing attention as the ITV 7 or to use modern phraseology as sexy.
The BBC though did have Ascot, Cheltenham and Aintree with the Grand National as it's centrepiece but the Jewel in the Crown was Sir Peter O'Sullevan “The Voice of Racing”. With his silky smooth voice, that still had the odd rough edge to give it character, he was the Nat King Cole of the commentating world. Of all his commentaries, the three that stand out are Attivo (who he owned) winning the Triumph Hurdle at the 1974 Cheltenham Festival sponsored by the Daily Express (a paper that he also wrote for), his professionalism as Attivo nearly threw away the race at the last having led all the way, is a bench mark for any budding commentator. The 1986 Cheltenham Gold Cup has often been called “The Greatest of his Commentaries”, as Dawn Run achieved the unachievable and added the Gold Cup to her Champion Hurdle of two years earlier, by getting back up in the shadow of the post. Arkle has often been used as a byword for perfection and as he won his first Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1964, it was the manner which he won that was totally unexpected. For as Arkle crossed the line Peter O'Sullevan, must have had the “Gift of Nostradamus”, O'Sullevan said “this is the champion this is the best we've seen for a long time”. How right that prophecy was to prove.
ITV didn't have a star commentator but they did have a clutch of quality presenters and of all the interviews conducted, the one that has stood out, though no-one knew it at the time one at the time, as it was just a random interview with two young lads from the late 1960's. John Rickman – he of doffing his hat to viewers, spoke to two boys at Redcar. One lad said he wanted to be a commentator, the other said his dream was to win the Grand National, the two boys happened to be Derek Thompson and Bob Champion. How many children can go onto say that they’ve achieved their childhood dream?
Television made stars out of Arkle, Red Rum and Desert Orchid, so much so that in 1966 readers of the TV Times voted Arkle that year's number one personality, ahead of the Beatles and Bobby Moore in England's World Cup winning year. Red Rum with his three wins repaid his fame by helping to save the nation’s favourite race, for without him the National would be nothing but a distant memory.
BBC first screened the National in 1960, prior to then Mrs Topham would not let their cameras through the gate, as she felt it would be detrimental to the attendances. Every National has a story to tell, whether it be Red Rum’s three wins, Bob Champion and Aldaniti both coming back from near-death or AP McCoy finally putting his National Hoodoo to rest. Two renewals though were made to measure for TV, 1967 and the massive pile up at the smallest fence on the course as 100/1 outsider Foinavon escaped all the mayhem. Twenty-six years later, the race made front page headlines for all the wrong reasons, after false start upon false start, over half the field got away to what they thought was proper race but the viewers knew otherwise, as they watched at home in disbelief and as Esha Ness crossed the winning line first his jockey John White’s face told the full story, he realised the win was not to be. The race took on a darker turn in 1997, as viewers watched in total bewilderment mixed with fear, whilst racegoers, jockeys et all were evacuated from the course because of a bomb threat. The race was finally run at 5pm on the following Monday, thanks largely to some miraculous last minute re-organising by all, not least the BBC and what a race as Peter O’Sullevan called his last ever National.
Horse Racing was first aired in the UK in 1948 and way back then, there was only the BBC, their official view on betting was that it did not exist. Presenters with the help from cameramen would try to circumvent that ruling by making sure that they stood near bookmakers’ boards to hear the sound of betting odds being called out.
ITV came into being in 1955 and they quickly realised, that they needed live sport to provide some action and Horse Racing easily filled that bill. Channel 4 came about in 1982 and took over the ITV contract in 1984. Over the next 25 years the BBC relinquished more and more of their coverage, so all the Beeb had left was Royal Ascot, Champions Day, the Grand National Meeting and the Derby, with the Welsh National the day after Boxing Day, thrown in as an after-thought.
When the BBC called time on their coverage of racing in 2012, this came as a shock but no surprise. So there could be no better winner of the last ever race screened on the channel than Frankel winning his final race in Ascot's Champion Stakes. The lead presenter that day was Clare Balding – daughter of Derby winning trainer Ian (Mill Reef) and sister of Oaks winning trainer Andrew (Casual Look) a race which resulted in her bursting out in tears on live TV, with the words “my little brother has won the Oaks”. Such grounding stood her in good stead as she has gone onto present chat shows, documentaries and of course the Olympics.
With Channel 4 becoming the sole terrestrial provider, some presenters moved onto pastures new, like John Francome becoming President of the Injured Jockeys Fund (IJF), whereas John McCricick’s departure resulted in a much publicised court case. As some exited by the stage door, it gave the chance for others to shine – one of those being Nick Luck, who is now much in demand on NBC for their Breeders Cup show.
Who knows what holds out for the new presenters, as racing returns to ITV for the first time in over thirty years. Will it make stars out of them, like it did of Derek Thompson, Clare Balding and John McCririck?