Racing is waiting to judge me, I can't wake up with a hangover, says C4's Spencer
22:00 GMT, 29 December 2012
Emma Spencer will be staying responsibly sober on New Year’s Eve. For the next day, she is part of the newly assembled team that will be placed under the microscope as never before when Channel 4 assumes exclusive coverage of horse-racing on British television.
‘It won’t be good to wake up with a hang-over after going to bed at 5am,’ said Spencer.
‘We know the racing world will be watching to see how we do, so I will definitely be spending New Year’s Eve differently from the way I usually would.’
Lady in red: Emma Spencer will help front Channel 4's racing coverage
To some, it is still a shock that the BBC has abdicated its decades-long association with the sport of kings. Last week, Sir Peter O’Sullevan, for more than 40 years the most recognisable voice of BBC Sport as he called the major races from the Derby to the Grand National, suggested with undeniable irritation: ‘I can’t believe this will go down terribly well with the monarchy.’
Yet the reality is that the BBC had reduced its live coverage of racing to a mere 13 days this year. In 2013, Channel 4 will televise 88 days’ racing; but the new production company awarded the contract have purged many of the faces familiar to the channel’s existing audience.
From the Old Guard, out go: John McCririck and Derek Thompson, who publicly expressed their grievances at being axed, along with presenters Alastair Down and Mike Cattermole. In addition, John Francome opted to walk away, while Lesley Graham had already chosen a career change by accepting the job of chief executive of Racing Welfare.
In comes Clare Balding, a national treasure after her performances at the Olympic Games in the summer. She will be joined by former BBC colleagues Mick Fitzgerald and Rishi Persad, but there is no place for Willie Carson. Instead, Fitzgerald will provide the perspective of an ex-jockey, with Graham Cunningham recruited from Racing UK to be the team’s analyst.
‘Change always divides opinion,’ said Spencer, 34. ‘I grew up listening to Sir Peter and I have the highest respect for him as a broadcaster. I can see why traditionalists might be upset at first.’
Plush: Spencer shares a house with her brother
However, from her knowledge of production meetings, Spencer is confident Channel 4 can win over the sceptics. She said: ‘There is going to be a smart purpose-built studio, with touch-screens and new graphics. I’m sure there are an abundance of fresh ideas that will be done to the best of everyone’s ability.’
As a broadcaster, Channel 4 have some form at breaking the mould; after all, they won unreserved plaudits, against all expectation, for their Test match cricket coverage. ‘I also think it will be good for the public to know that from now on all racing in this country can be found on the same channel,’ said Spencer, who survives from the former Channel 4 team along with commentator Simon Holt, Alice Plunkett, Jim McGrath and Tanya Stevenson.
Like Balding, Spencer is the daughter of a racehorse trainer; or in her case, two as both parents, Jack and Lynda Ramsden, held training licences at one time or another.
Even so, to her disappointment, Spencer’s credentials are often overlooked by gossip diarists who refer to her as the ‘glamour puss’ of Channel 4’s racing output.
‘I do take umbrage at that,’ she admitted. ‘There’s part of me that thinks: “Hold on, I’m a serious career woman”. Anyone who has worked with me knows how much homework I do. In spite of people thinking you’re a girl, and therefore don’t know much about racing, I probably have quite a good background to understand the sport.’
Twice, she has been champion amateur lady jockey. ‘I’d love to have Clare’s brain,’ she said with a chuckle. ‘She’s amazing. She does radio, TV, and can broadcast on sport, politics and culture. She’s had an unbelievable year, and while she has a racing background she is also recognised outside of racing. Clare is an asset to us.
‘But I’ve a similar background. I grew up in the racing world and have known her family for a long time. Her brother, Andrew, now training at the yard where his father, Toby, trained, was an assistant to my parents when they trained in Yorkshire.
‘I was riding from a young age and my father had strong opinions on how horses are ridden. When you’re brought up listening to that, it’s a massive help. I’ve ridden in a few hundred races and I’d like to think that makes me more than just a girl who knows a bit about racing.’
She was married to Jamie Spencer, whose rise to champion jockey saw them labelled the Posh and Becks of racing. They lived in a 1.75million home in Newmarket, and had three children.
But Jamie’s affair with Hayley Turner, the leading woman jockey, precipitated a breakdown in their marriage and led to Emma filing for divorce three years ago. For a time, she refused to interview Turner in her role as a reporter for Channel 4. That is no longer the case. ‘It’s history, isn’t it Life goes on,’ said Emma.
Line up: Channel 4 have taken over all racing coverage from the BBC
She and her ex-husband — whose romance with Turner fizzled out — have an amicable relationship and he saw their children over Christmas. ‘While it was difficult at the time of our break-up, we get on well,’ said Emma. ‘Over the past three years, dealing with divorce, the children starting school and having a career, you do have difficult days. Just as you overcome one problem with one of the children, the next one develops attitude! Luckily, I can see light at the end of the tunnel; and thanks to the help I have it’s very manageable.
‘Jamie lives a couple of miles away. His season is so demanding, but he sees the kids whenever he can. Even now, at the races, people think we’re still married, which was awkward for both of us at first when I had to interview him after a race. But Jamie has always been very professional.’
Since moving out of the marital home, Spencer and her children have moved into an even more sumptuous Newmarket property with seven bedrooms, an indoor pool and a cinema — all built around a courtyard featuring a fountain and sunken garden. It reportedly cost 2.95m but had been on the market some time earlier for 7m. The house was bought by her brother, Anthony Ramsden.
‘Anthony was living in London when I found the house, and when he came and saw it, he fell in love with it, too,’ she explained. ‘Now he has one side of the house and we have the other; we are like passing ships in the night.’
Spencer juggles being a single parent with a career in television. She has also found the time to freshen her wardrobe for the advent of Channel 4’s takeover of racing. ‘You don’t want to know how many pairs of shoes I have,’ she said. ‘I am a shopaholic! I have a lot of clothes, too, let’s leave it at that.’
More pertinently, Emma Spencer has been investing heavily in doing her homework, as she knows that on New Year’s Day the racing community will be placing Channel 4’s coverage under greater scrutiny than ever.