Channel 4 count on Clare class to clear the first hurdle with racing coverage
22:30 GMT, 31 December 2012
A New Year and a new era for Channel 4 racing begin on Tuesday with a whimper and without the two most recognisable names and faces in the sport.
Frankie Dettori, who as a Flat jockey would in any case be on holiday at this time of the year, is banned for six months for a drug offence while John McCririck has been swept away by a broom wielded with perhaps hasty gusto by the incoming production company.
Love him or loathe him, ‘Big Mac’ boasts a profile few in horse racing can match.
Channel hopping: Clare Balding will front the racing on Channel 4
The whimper for the relaunch of the sole remaining terrestrial coverage was guaranteed when Cheltenham postponed their New Year’s Day meeting on Monday due to waterlogged ground. Poor Clare Balding, and there has been no other occasion to think that this annus mirabilis.
Denied a proper ‘goodbye’ from her BBC racing role by the weather last week, she will be restricted to a Channel 4 ‘hello’ from Nicky Henderson’s stables in Lambourn and not from a race meeting.
Perhaps not the greatest omen. This is more a case of going through the top of the first fence rather than hitting the ground running.
La Balding will be fine. Better than that. She will be her usual excellent self, as less prejudiced observers recognised long before her unmitigated triumph at the Olympic Games.
Large than life: John McCririck will no longer be part of the Channel 4 racing team
A real pro, she thrives on good old-fashioned hard work, journalistic rigour and unbridled enthusiasm.
A small quibble. A little less of the breathless whispering, please.
Hushed tones have never been McCririck’s style and there was never any chance of this largest of larger-than-life characters going quietly.
‘It is clearly a case of age discrimination,’ the 72-year-old told Sportsmail. ‘It is illegal what they (Channel 4) have done. But what can you do I never missed a day’s work and I don’t think I was ever late. My ability is unimpaired. I am very sad.’
McCririck remains particularly aggrieved about both the manner of his dismissal and what he regards as some implied criticism. ‘Thirty years, no consultation and I am rung 30 minutes before a press release is distributed.
Missing face: Frankie Dettori will not be on Channel 4 as he is serving a six month ban
‘And they talk about looking for a more journalistic approach to the context. I won two British Press Awards and I was a former Campaigning Journalist of the Year. This was a deliberate attempt to humiliate and demean me. It is very hurtful.’
McCririck may come across as something of a dinosaur but he has never been frightened to get dirty at the coal face, asking the difficult questions, confronting the controversial issues and holding to account those deserving of close scrutiny.
Part of the team: Emma Spencer will be part of the Channel 4 team
He formed an odd but expert betting partnership with Tanya Stevenson, who will continue in her role. The problem for new producers IMG Sports Media is that they are following a hard act in Highflyer, who in 28 years won several prestigious television awards while establishing a deserved reputation for excellence.
This was never more evident than in last Saturday’s final programme from the old regime when three times racing writer of the year Alastair Down, John Francome and McCririck, the three main casualties of change, demonstrated sheer class with the most dignified of farewells.
Down, in particular, was at his lyrical and poetic best in talking about jump racing being ‘the very stuff of life’, ‘nourishment for the soul’ and a ‘magnetic pull stronger than the very poles’ against a pictorial background of wonderful memories from a high-quality back catalogue.
‘If the devil could cast his nets (he would catch) some wonderful people involved in making these programmes behind the scenes,’ Down said.
Line up: Channel 4 have taken over all racing coverage from the BBC
‘Haway the lads,’ the Newcastle United-supporting McCririck concluded as Stevenson moved to embrace the whiskered one.
It is doubtful whether his encouragement was intended for the lads, and lasses, who from today represent the terrestrial custodians of the Sport of Kings.
The public will be watching and so will racing.