When I was 12, I got into terrible trouble at school for running a betting operation. I would commentate on a wholly imagined horse race, with invented runners, on which my classmates had placed bets. I never knew which horses had been backed until my commentary finished, whereupon I would pay out or, more usually, clean up. When the headmaster got wind of this, I was forced to pay back every penny and do penance in the form of a week’s detentions.
Some 40 years later, as I prepare to learn the art of proper horseracing commentary, from Channel 4’s Simon Holt, memories of my youthful indiscretion come cantering back. I never struggled to articulate the names of runners and riders when they were made up or to generate excitement as they approached the fictitious final furlongs. But what will it be like dealing with real horseflesh, identifying actual jockeys, conveying genuine drama?
Fortunately, the first race at Ascot, on the afternoon I stand at Holt’s shoulder in his eyrie high in the grandstand, has only four runners. I listen to Holt “call” the race, then have a go myself over a recorded version. That’s the easy bit. After that, my task is to commentate live, albeit safely away from the official microphone. I will sit on the other side of the glass from my mentor, who will judge my efforts by listening to the recording carried out by my 19-year-old son Joe. He has accompanied me for the day and is scarcely able to stifle his giggles as I get runners, riders and everything else mixed up.
Holt, I now know, makes an extraordinarily difficult discipline sound remarkably easy. He has been at it since 1987, although even his vast experience is no guarantor of perfection. Indeed, it was here at Ascot that he once dropped the spoonerism all commentators dread, during the Royal Hunt Cup. “And in front of Her Majesty the Queen, too,” he says, with a wry smile.
Holt is engagingly willing to tell me about his gaffes, perhaps because they are so infrequent. In horseracing circles the 50-year-old is acknowledged as one of the finest commentators around, for his clarity of speech as much as his speed of observation. He spends around 160 days a year at the microphone, commentating not only for Channel 4 but also the dedicated TV channel At The Races. His voice is piped into all Britain’s betting shops and, as today at Ascot, he also calls the action for on-course public address systems. I could have no finer instructor.
Holt rarely bets, and never on races he is calling. “As every punter knows, once you’ve had a bet you only look out for one horse,” he explains. And yet he must always keep the betting public in mind. “Every horse in every race will have been backed by someone, somewhere, in the country, and the one thing punters loathe is when their horse is never even mentioned.”
It is easier in some races than others to name-check all the horses. The aforementioned Royal Hunt Cup is a mile long with 28 runners. “They tend to split into two groups, so you’re covering two races in one and, by the time they get to a furlong and a half out, they are literally spread right across the track,” Holt says. “Even for seasoned commentators, it’s terribly difficult trying to spot where the winner’s coming from.”
To give himself the best possible chance, he has to be able to identify every horse with ease. During big race meetings, he will spend an hour or so every evening learning the jockeys’ colours for the following day. “Royal Ascot takes an awful lot of preparation,” he says. “In a way the bigger meetings are easier, because the colours are better known. But fear of failure concentrates the mind. The peril of this job is that you can do it successfully for years, then be remembered for one mistake.”
Before the third race of the afternoon, he sends me off to learn the colours of the jockeys’ outfits, or “silks”, from the racecard. The exercise ignites more memories of my school days, for it is just like preparing for an exam: Evita Peron … yellow and black, Solar Magic … red with a white sash.
Sometimes the silks are easily confused. In those instances, says Holt, it helps to know what the animal itself looks like. He takes me to the back of the grandstand, where we gaze down on the parade ring, where the horses are being led around for the delectation of those who love to see these magnificent creatures at close quarters. “Look,” he says, handing me his binoculars, “number five has four white socks, number three has a noseband.”
And there is another dimension to the homework: the horse’s form. “It’s helpful to know which horses you think will make the early running,” says Holt, “so you have something to say in the first furlong. On the other hand, never prepare an ad lib. The essence of racing is its unpredictability.”
That unpredictability brings the real challenge, for the homework is useless without a fluent, informative, exciting account of the race. I fail dismally on all counts. “Your delivery is a bit military,” says Holt afterwards, listening to me calling the third race and plainly trying not to wince. “You sound rather like you’re announcing Trooping the Colour. You need to be a bit more informal, increasing in pace as the race goes on. It helps to have a few colourful phrases in your repertoire: tracking the leaders, snapping at the heels, that sort of thing. Also, it’s taken you half a mile to call all eight names. You should have got through them two or three times by then.”
The firm message at the end of my masterclass is not to give up the day job. But I have learnt plenty at the master’s shoulder, not least that a commentator must have an abiding love for his sport. Holt clearly does. “The Cheltenham Gold Cup is probably my favourite race of all,” he enthuses. “Jump racing is more of a sport because it’s for geldings, who can’t procreate. Flat racing is more of a business, with the good horses heading off to stud at the end of their three-year career, usually before the public has had time to build up affection. But having said that, I’ve done 16 Royal Ascots [on the Flat]. It’s a marvellous occasion.”
Royal Ascot runs from June 17-21. Telephone 0844 346 3000 or visit ascot.co.uk for more information
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