Has ITV backed a winner by buying back live horse racing on TV?

Sports writer and broadcaster Martin Kelner asks whether airing the races on ITV is a safe bet


Please gamble responsibly. Wise counsel undoubtedly, though when it comes to betting on horses, if you believe you can judge which of several animals will win in a race, and then back that belief with hard cash, you may have sacrificed your right to be considered in any way responsible.


It’s worth pointing this out now that ITV has taken over horse racing coverage from Channel 4 with the avowed intention of making the whole arcane business more appealing to a general audience.

To this end, alongside presenter Ed Chamberlin and former jockeys Mick Fitzgerald and Tony McCoy, they have a hyperactive “betting expert”, Matt Chapman, who bounces around the on-course bookies, pointing at the boards displaying the odds, saying things like: “This horse is 7–4. That means if you put four pounds on, you would win seven.”


ITV’s lead hors racing presenter Ed Chamberlin

As someone a little too familiar with this world, I feel I ought to share the bad news that the more likely outcome is that you lose four.

Oh, and the inverted commas around “betting expert” are in no way intended to belittle the broadcaster’s expertise. It’s just that bitter experience has led me to side with the late writer and racing enthusiast Jeffrey Bernard, who defined the art of giving tips as “impersonating God”.

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld used to do a routine about the unknowability of racehorses, in which he said: “I don’t think they even know they’re in a race.”

Well, a little while back I was able to put this view to retired racehorse trainer Jenny Pitman, the first woman to train a Grand National winner (Corbiere, 1983), and she pooh-poohed it: “Once you put on their racing plates the horses know they are going to be in a race,” she insisted. “And they look forward to the thrill, some more than others.”

Clearly it’s the thrilled ones you want to put your money on. And this is just one of the variables you need to consider. Even Bruce Millington, editor of the racegoers’ bible, Racing Post, and a racing journalist for 30 years, describes picking a winner as “a series of inexact sciences”.


The great phalanxes of figures that greet you when you open the Post will probably mean little to beginners, says Millington, but his paper and the British Horseracing Association crunch these figures into one easily understood rating. “And the highest-rated horse is the likeliest winner,” says Millington.

So, that’s all right then. But wait. “You have to consider the jockey as well. These aren’t just a bunch of small people who point the horse in the right direction. A good jockey can give a lower-rated horse a vital edge.”

Then there’s the state of the ground. Racing people are obsessed with the going. For instance, a horse with big feet will have an advantage on soft ground, so you have to keep an eye on the weather.

It’s worth looking out for horses wearing cheek-pieces, too, according to Millington. This means if it’s one of those horses who tends to spend the race looking around in a dreamy fashion, and to hell with the result, the face furniture will keep its eyes pointing in the right direction and arguably more focused on the race.

So what is Millington’s definition of gambling responsibly? “Budget for every single horse you back losing.”


Racing experts Luke Harvey and Mick Fitzgerald 

Theoretically, of course, it’s possible to enjoy watching these fine animals racing as equine athletics, with no financial interest, but ITV has always been more realistic.

They virtually invented the Saturday flutter in the 60s with the ITV Seven. But beyond the betting, the broadcaster has the added dilemma of producing a two-and-a-half hour programme with only about 20 minutes or so of actual action.

This means the coverage becomes more of a magazine/chat show, so the introduction of champion cyclist turned jockey Victoria Pendleton to the team could be a wise move. She’s made a confident start, though in explaining the difference between training for a cycle race and a horse race, she somehow failed to mention that you don’t have to feed the bike.

“ITV’s right to do what it can to widen the audience for racing,” says Millington, “I love the democracy of it. Sure, there’s a lot of science involved, but there are times when the amateur armed with a pin and a list of favourite names can rival the experts in picking winners.”


ITV Racing Live is on Saturday 11 February at 1.30pm on ITV4