Magazine article The Spectator

The Turf: Robin Oakley

Magazine article The Spectator

The Turf: Robin Oakley

Article excerpt

Never mind David Cameron. Are you participating in the Great Debate about an event of national significance that stirs the blood of millions? No, I don't mean the General Election: racing is in a tizzy about who should lead the television coverage of this year's Grand National since the sainted Clare Balding (whom God preserve) has opted on the big day to cover instead the predictable procession in the Oxford v . Cambridge Boat Race. Channel Four, in whose hands Aintree coverage rests, has been semi-publicly agitating whether to allow Clare's fellow racing presenter Nick Luck to replace her in fronting the show or to go outside for a 'big name', who will supposedly resonate with the wider non-racing public who tune into jump-racing just once a year.

For me there is no contest. Nick Luck is a polished and experienced presenter with a deep racing knowledge and limitless contacts within the sport. He is far more likely to win intriguing and informative responses from jockeys, trainers and owners than some non-racing 'star' like Jeremy Kyle or Vernon Kay. The very fact the debate is taking place is another depressing example of TV's ratings-driven celebrity culture, which jettisons genuine knowledge and insight in favour of a knee-jerk 'which big name can we find to front this series and boost the ratings?' I adore watching Joanna Lumley acting in some sharply penned film or sitcom. I will tune into any radio or TV show that enables Stephen Fry to demonstrate his wit and gift for wordplay. But I don't want La Lumley or the dexterous Fry filling my screen when I have tuned in to watch a nature or travel series.

Why, anyway, should the Grand National need a personality outside the sport to lead the coverage? Does anybody clamour for coverage of Wimbledon or the Open Golf Championship to be led by the Strictly Come Dancing panel? Would the Australians or the French let a showbiz outsider present the Melbourne Cup or the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe? Good luck to Nick. The whole thing is a nonsense that reminds me of Sonny Liston's response to a furore over who should referee his world-title bout. 'Who cares?' he said. 'So long as he can count to ten that's all that's needed.'

Star horses, riders and trainers and decent-sized fields, not a sprinkling of showbiz stardust, are what racing needs to keep the public coming through the turnstiles. Many of those at Ascot last Saturday went purely to watch the return of Sprinter Sacre, the most exciting jumper most of us have seen in the past two decades, after a heart murmur had kept him off the track for 13 months. …

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