Channel 4: don’t lose the humour

I FEEL like the Channel 4 Racing team have become close pals of mine over the past 28 years. We have spent a lot of time together. Me sitting on the couch watching them do their stuff on Saturday afternoons and, in particular, during the big midweek meetings. I’ve watched John Francome and John McCririck continually lock horns, Derek Thompson charm racegoers with his boyish enthusiasm and ex-Timeform man Jim McGrath do his utmost to provide some decorum – and insightful statistical analysis.

Since its first racing broadcast from Doncaster on March 22, 1984, the Channel 4 Racing team have been a real source of pleasure and a constant presence. And that’s been reassuring because, let’s be honest, most of us don’t really like change.

But there are changes afoot…

From January 1, Channel 4 will monopolise terrestrial free-to-air coverage after outbidding the BBC. From 2013 to 2016 it will have carte blanche over Cheltenham, Aintree, Royal Ascot, Goodwood et al. The BBC’s loss of racing, well that argument is for another day…

What racing fans are looking forward to is how Channel 4 steps up to the TV plate and, fascinatingly, which presenting talent they will retain or recruit.

The wonderful Clare Balding has already been announced as the main anchor and she will be the face of Channel 4 Racing. That is a fabulous start. As she proved during the Olympics, she is, quite simply, the best sports broadcaster on television.

But one of the pillars on which Channel 4 has built its racing coverage has been the humour. So I’m desperately hoping the new-look team will retain the barbs and the jokes.

McCririck’s rantings may not be to everybody’s taste, but he provides an edge. On The Morning Line, you can almost sense Francome and others muttering obscenities under their breath when McCririck starts letting rip. Then there is Tommo. Yes, I am sure Derek’s enthusiasm may grate with some, but to me he is an institution. He has the common touch and a natural affinity with the racing public. I can’t remember Old Harrowvian Julian Wilson mixing with the hoi palloi on the BBC and asking them who they fancied in the big one?

Other presenters are jockeying for position. Some are dead certs to be retained, such as Nick Luck, or “Lord Snooty”, who makes anchoring a TV show look ridiculously easy and whose off-the-cuff putdowns can be hilarious. And the excellent Simon Holt will surely be retained as lead commentator.

But others, well they could be sent to the sales ring. Sadly, Francome, the “Greatest Jockey”, has already indicated he won’t be staying on under the new production company IMG Sports Media, which beat Highflyer and Sunset and Vine to the contract. The futures of Mike Cattermole, Alistair Down, Lesley Graham, Emma Spencer and Tanya Stevenson are also up in the air. Maybe IMG will look to poach other talent? With Francome departing, maybe there’s a spot for an ex-jockey?

Behind the camera, Channel 4’s coverage will be headed up by BBC Sport’s senior programme editor Carl Hicks, a mainstay of the corporation’s Olympics coverage. He is bred in the purple when it comes to racing broadcasting having previously overseen nine Grand Nationals and eight Royal Ascots – so he knows his stuff.

But whatever happens and whoever the personnel, I’m hoping that the banter, the sniping, the mickey-taking and the overall humour will remain part of the parcel of the show.

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