Fundamentally, horse racing commentary is a memory test. It requires a machine-gun delivery, instant recall and accuracy. Those are the main pressures of the job.
Preparation is absolutely crucial. I tend to learn the jockeys’ colours the day before, when the full field is available. I cram all 40 runners and riders, and hopefully by the start of the race they are second nature. But also, as with any other sports commentator, I have to bear in mind what the story will be. It’s the element of performance, building to a climax and being ready with the right words, just in case AP McCoy bounds clear on Shutthefrontdoor to win one of the most famous victories in the sport.
That’s just one of many potential stories in this year’s Grand National, but I have to be aware of it. I’m aware of the possible scenarios, but if you rehearse ad-libs and prepare lines, it sounds contrived.
I get butterflies before the big races. I try to give off this impression of being calm and laid back, but basically it’s “swan syndrome”: it’s all going on underneath. The first part, where there are 40 runners running down to the first fence, is the most difficult. You can’t see the wood from the trees, and you are looking for anything that can help identification. Is a horse wearing a sheepskin noseband? Does it have a white face?
Every horse in the race has been backed by somebody. The biggest complaint from punters if you ever go into a betting shop is, “Never got a mention!” They hate it. So ideally all 40 horses will get a mention at some stage of the race.
I do have occasional bets myself, but I tend not to when I’m commentating because it’s distracting. My job in the Grand National is to look at 40 horses, not one. The temptation when you’ve had a bet, however professional you think you are, is to look for the one you’ve backed.
I think some owners are a bit mischievous, and pick names to deliberately trip us up. There aren’t too many difficult ones in this year’s National, thankfully. One of the hardest horses I’ve found to pronounce in the past few years has been a chaser called Quantitative Easing. If you’re aiming for all the syllables it’s difficult to say very quickly: Quan-ti-ta-tive Easing.
Pacing yourself comes down to experience. I was 23 when I started commentating, and my voice was higher than it is now: I used to get too excited too early. One of the first big races I called was the Welsh Grand National at Chepstow. It’s an enormous race course, but by the end of the first circuit I was already almost at my highest reach. Second time round I was practically squeaking. I still cringe when I hear it.
Whisky and cigars have been the making of my voice. Not whisky so much, but I think smoking probably helps deepen your voice a little bit, and naturally as you get older your voice deepens. It’s why some of the great broadcasters sounded better when they got older. Not only does their voice sound much more broadcastable, but they become familiar to the ears of the listeners. They develop gravitas.
Aintree is a difficult balance, trying to satisfy the aficionados while enthusing the people who are tuning in just because it’s on. We will have by far our biggest audience of the year [8 million watched last year], but for a lot of them it will be the only time they watch a race. I don’t agree with accusations that the sport doesn’t care for its horses, but the National is racing’s highest-profile event – and one of the more dangerous ones. It does fuel the opposing arguments.
I’ve always loved horses, and have been involved in owning race horses now for over 20 years. I’d be a much richer man if I’d never got involved, but I’ve had a lot of pleasure from it. It gives me a tremendous insight for what a race horse has to go through to keep fit and well. They are fragile animals. They weigh half a tonne, but most of that weight is in the body area; they have these relatively spindly legs that absorb all the concussion.
Some of the people I admire most are comedians, especially stream-of-consciousness comics who are basically ad-libbing. The Irish call it the gift of the gab; I don’t think I’ve got it, I just think I’ve got experience of calling races. I’ve given a few best man speeches and they have all been scripted. I wouldn’t dare try and ad-lib it. But commentary can’t be scripted.
As told to James Gill
The Grand National is on Channel 4 from 1pm today (Saturday 11th April)