December 2016 marked the end of an era. Channel 4 Racing broadcast to the nation for the last time. As a programme it had become a somewhat expendable part of a life – the action was often flicked through at x6, unless I’d had a bet, and the Morning Line was sometimes dispensed with altogether. But this post-Christmas tundra was different, and I felt a change coming like an Eskimo might sense snow. We stood on the brink of a sea change, or a paradigm shift for the economists out there. I had to clear the schedule, sit down and watch both the final offerings in their gory entirety. It was like a funeral, and I wondered what the eulogy would be.
The final Morning Line appeared on Boxing Day (perhaps the Welsh National meeting not deemed of significant enough stature to host the finale the next day?) There was a feeble attempt at a retrospective, as though a few soundbites could aptly summarise over three decades of output. The glory years of Big Mac, Greatest Jockey, Tommo and Fat Al were given scant airtime. If you are going to do it, Channel 4, do it properly.
Instead, we were treated to the technologically curious sight of Fitzy flicking through a paper printout of tweets in order to ask Paul Nicholls some rather uninspiring questions. Fitzy is a good presenter, and Nicholls is a great trainer, but did the producers really think this was going to make better TV than a proper retrospective? Punters were not tuning in to hear the predictable news that Kauto Star was Nicholls best horse, but were present to pay their respects to the passing of the legendary programme.
Lucky made a weird guest appearance, stripped of the anchor duties, and tried to restore some order and purpose, but even the suave maestro was strangely impotent, relegated to the far end of the sofa alongside Tongue-Tied Tanya. As TS Elliot would say, “this is how the C4 Racing world ends, not with a bang but a whimper”. No matter, I thought – they would have something more appropriate lined up for the next day, surely?
Seven races, including a full rendition of the Welsh national anthem, didn’t leave a lot of time to get sentimental, and we were whizzed from one side of the Britain to the other in quick succession. I know people watching a horse racing programme might want to watch some horse racing, but I was left with a nagging doubt that they had forgotten the end was nigh, or even worse were going to pretend like nothing was wrong – the band that played on whilst the boat sank around them.
Finally some notables gathered on the purple sofa and it was left, fittingly, to Lucky to close out proceedings. Assured and likeable, perhaps he came across as a bit posh to front ITV’s new show, but it is hard to think of a safer pair of hands for the big occasion and he shall be missed.
At the other end of the sofa there was another stalwart saying goodbye. The languid Simon Holt has been mostly hidden behind the commentator’s microphone since IMG, the new production team, took over four years ago, but here he spoke with stature and eloquence about the sport that he loves. Again, ITV has over-looked him, in favour of the more energetic Richard Hoiles, but the old Morning Line often wheeled out Holt to add a fresh ingredient to the melting pot of the usual suspects and I return once again to the rubric that if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.
Lucky finished by saying that it was not about them but about the horses, men and women that have made it so special. Whilst I agree in a sense, for once I think he got it wrong – that day was all about the Channel 4 team that have accompanied me, and I suspect millions of other armchair fans, through a memorable 32 years.
And then, finally, a proper retrospective of sorts. Video from over the decades to some stirring music saw out the last ten minutes of the final programme. All of a sudden I saw myself, somehow inside the winners’ enclosure at AP’s Sandown retirement, with all of the journalistic greats scribbling notes with serious faces, and a tall clown wafting aimlessly about and taking photos like some racing tourist. Nice of the VT editors to include me for my services to C4 Racing.
And so to the new. ITV Racing on New Year’s Day from a sodden Cheltenham, and if they wanted to introduce horse racing to a wider audience they chose a funny way to start. Whilst the incredible Warhorse puppets are a fantastic synthesis of art and science, the scenes of white-gloved and top-hatted theatre-goers seemed if anything slightly elitist. And then some archive footage of Dickie Davies, Brough Scott and Lord Oaksey did nothing to address that issue, or suggest the progressive nature of what was to follow.
Then we were transported back through the sepia back-catalogue to the harsh, modern day reality of three men huddled under umbrellas in a freezing parade ring. Any devotees of this sport will have instantly understood their sacrifice and bonded with our new guides, notwithstanding their frequent protestations of how much fun they were having despite the weather. The line up: Ed Chamberlin – tick, AP McCoy – jury still out, and Luke Harvey – tick, if he doesn’t try too hard. Ed said that the ground was “softening all the time”, as if to showcase his new knowledge and vocabulary.
Richard Hoiles showed us a map of the course, which somehow mirrored the transition from old to new. I have been to Cheltenham more times than I can remember, but this still proved informative and useful. And Alice Plunkett was behind the scenes, cheerily assuring us that there would be familiar comfort in the new post-C4 wilderness.
Finally the reincarnation of Big Mac hit our screens and hopped vigorously about a wet betting ring. Actually, it was Matt Chapman, and his enthusiasm and spontaneity was real too, rather than a pre-rehearsed impersonation of McCririck. He is brilliant, and if anyone carries this new production it shall be him rather than the assortment of lauded starts in more glamorous locations around the racecourse.
His impromptu game of “hair or no hair” with one of the bookies was irreverent but never veered towards offensive or banal, and his banter with the other presenters was not forced but witty and endearing. There will be those that hate him, just like they hated the oaf McCririck, but it is surely undeniable that he brightened up dull winter afternoon in a way that Tanya could never have done.
Then Victoria Pendleton and Lucy Verasami appeared, and finally it was clear the direction ITV were heading. To cut through the wealth of new talent and beaming smiles, we were treated to a feature on Jonjo. It was well-researched, well-made and well-received – if ITV keep doing that they will do well. Ed reminded us that conditions were “softening all the time” in case we hadn’t noticed the umbrellas and that the previously white britches of the jockeys after the first race were now looking like they’d had a dodgy curry the previous night.
Even AP seemed to be getting in on the act when he quipped self-deprecatingly to the bedraggled Ed “big change from a warm, comfy football studio with two of the best pundits in the game!” Indeed. Ed then reminded us that conditions were “softening all the time” in case we hadn’t heard him the first two times.
Overall it was a really promising start for the new regime, and in my opinion the mixed response can only reinforce how the public dislike change. ITV seem to be recreating the feel of the old Channel 4 without trying to copy it, and if they can do a similar job this Saturday with their version of the Morning Line we will all be onto a winner.