My granddad was a punter… though not a very good one. He took me racing from a very young age: firstly to Wolverhampton, then to the middle day of the Cheltenham Festival. I developed a fixation with Very Promising (in fact I’ve still got one of his shoes), and with other David Nicholson-trained horses. In fact, my dad would take me on visits to Nicholson’s yard in Condicote, before he moved up to Jackdaws Castle. The first race I remember watching was the 1982 Grand National. I think, inevitably, if people have a winning bet, that ties them in. Well, I had a 10p win on Grittar, so from then on, I became a bit of an obsessive.
I never imagined I could work in racing. I went to university, where I studied English, and when I graduated, everyone around me was getting jobs as lawyers and consultants. I didn’t really fancy that, so I wrote to The Racing Post and Sporting Life to ask for some work experience. The Sporting Life replied by return post, and they asked me up for an interview. The editor told me I could come for a month and, if they liked me, I could stay for longer. Well, they did like me, so I stayed for four months, and from then on, I tumbled from job to job. There wasn’t much thought put into it, save for my initial hope of not wanting to give up independence, moving back in with my parents.
I used to present on the BBC and Channel 4, but nowadays I’m on Racing TV. I prefer working for a specialist racing channel, as it gives you time to go into topics in more detail. The thing I found difficult about terrestrial television – and particularly the BBC – was how little time was given to the expansion of thought. That’s not a criticism, but it just didn’t suit me. I was moving up the ladder, and I never stepped back to question whether terrestrial television was something I really wanted to do. I only realised it wasn’t for me when I was in it, which was probably too late. That said, I’m not sorry I had the experience, just that I didn’t enjoy elements of it.
If you work in racing as a journalist or broadcaster, you’re there because you like racing. However, part of being a friend to racing is asking questions and holding people to account. I think the sport comes across as more robust if it can answer those questions, and I feel it’s my job to ask questions the public would like answered. The sport can do everything for to me: it can make me elated, devastated, and angry. And, inevitably, there can be a lot of moaning. However, I think at the moment, there’s lots to be worried about. Does British racing have the horses to fill some of its better races… not the very top races yet, but the level just below? Where’s the talent drain going? Does the race programme fit the horse population? Should we, indeed, follow the horse population, or will that lead to a downward spiral?
With so much that’s justifiably worrying, the balance of positivity comes when you watch the races. You must remember that while racing brings the country a large income, and there’s a huge industry supporting jobs in racing – particularly in rural areas – it is primarily a sport. Racing is a niche. But that niche can, paradoxically, be its strength. Because, when it comes to niches, racing is a pretty strong one… people who like racing, they really like racing! That’s why I think the sport should focus more on its core audience, rather than assuming they’re captive and focussing, often at their expense, on bringing new people in. Racing fans tend to pass on their enjoyment and passion to friends, partners and children, and that’s how the sport can grow.
The first racecourse that knocked me over was Cheltenham. Alastair Down described it as a “natural amphitheatre”, and it really is. Cheltenham makes you tingle when you arrive, and it still has that effect on me. I also love Hexham (that might be a bit random?!). Kelso is a good day out, too. And, on the flat, I love York. I think York is the course that does most things right. You can have a really good time at York no matter how much you have to spend. It’s a trick most racecourses don’t manage to pull off. I’m quite a fan of Salisbury too, and I’ll also add Sandown to the list.