Magazine article The Spectator

The Turf: Robin Oakley

Magazine article The Spectator

The Turf: Robin Oakley

Article excerpt

You had to feel for ITV's new racing team on their opening day at Cheltenham. It was cold, wet and utterly miserable but they opted not to take refuge in a warm studio but to stay close to the action under their brollies, putting a brave face on things. During what I nowadays look back on as my misspent youth as BBC political editor, I once did the same. As I began a live interview for the Nine O'Clock News from an outside balcony at a Labour party conference, bursting to reveal some exclusive information, the heavens opened. I was drenched within 30 seconds but continued, only for the newscaster to cut me off after just one question with a brisk 'Thank you, Robin Oakley in Brighton.' Furious, I called the programme editor: 'What the hell were you doing? This is a big story. I needed much more time.' The reply was simple: 'Absolutely no point, Robin. Even in the studio we were all watching nothing but the line of wet creeping down your shirt and the rivulets running off the end of your nose. No viewer will have been listening to a word you said.' Broadcasting gremlins you learn to cope with, but none of us can do anything about the weather.

ITV's front man Ed Chamberlin, the former Sky TV football presenter, and team members Sir Anthony McCoy, Luke Harvey and Mick Fitzgerald coped well with the extra strain provided by the elements. So did Ian Bartlett the following week, commentating on the runners in a Wincanton fog: do the weather gods have something against ITV as racing's new broadcasting partner? Although I suppose the brolly huddle may have helped to underline the team spirit intended to characterise the ITV coverage.

They are going to need camaraderie because there are three main problems in covering racing. The first is the length of time between races, which leaves much talking time to be filled by presenters who have to be both knowledgeable and likable. The second is the dilemma that those of us who write racing books face too: how much can you explain the rites and language and symbols of this mystic sport to the uninitiated without irritating the aficionados? The third is that for many racing is less a sport than a gambling medium. The sport's finances depend on gambling and ITV wouldn't be covering racing at all if it didn't see useful revenues coming its way from bookmaker advertising. But many of those involved with the sport, including such major figures as trainer Mark Johnston and David Redvers, the guiding hand behind Qatari Sheikh Fahad's vital racing operation, find the coverage of betting irritating and intrusive. …

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