FOR months, sports presenter Ed Chamberlin was told by friends, colleagues and acquaintances that he was “mad” to become ITV’s face of racing. This, after all, is the consummate broadcaster who had made his name presenting Premier League football on Sky Sports.
Yet the only person who had no doubts whatsoever was Chamberlin himself after ITV secured horse racing’s terrestrial broadcast rights from Channel Four. Two months into his new role – and just 10 days from the acclaimed Cheltenham festival – the 43-year-old feels vindicated.
“People thought I was mad. For me, it was a no-brainer,” said Chamberlin, whose passion is audible in his voice. “People kept asking me ‘what are you doing?’ But I never had any doubts.”
Not even on a piercingly cold January morning at Warwick when Chamberlin would, in his former role, have been preparing to present coverage of Manchester United versus Liverpool, the biggest fixture and rivalry in domestic football. “I thought this might be the day, but I absolutely loved Warwick (One For Arthur won the National trial for Lucinda Russell and Derek Fox) and never thought about Man Utd versus Liverpool. Brilliant,” he said.
Chamberlin was speaking exclusively to The Yorkshire Post ahead of this afternoon’s ITV1 coverage of Doncaster and Newbury’s jump racing, including the prestigious Grimthorpe Chase on Town Moor when a number of National contenders complete their Aintree preparations.
The network’s coverage of darts means an unexpected opportunity to switch horse racing from ITV4 to ITV1, its home for the major meetings, and promote the sport ahead of Cheltenham which an undaunted Chamberlin likens to four FA Cup finals on successive days.
Racing was Chamberlin’s first sporting love – he wanted to get into racecourse management and found himself at Ladbrokes when accepted onto the then BHB graduate training scheme in the mid-1990s.
When a broadcasting career beckoned, he realised football was the place to get noticed as the Premier League’s popularity became stratospheric. It was also a useful apprenticeship for his new role which began on New Year’s Day at rain-sodden Cheltenham.
“The key word is trust,” explained Chamberlin, who has spent months visiting stables to learn about the industry. “When I worked with Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville on Monday Night Football, the key thing was to get their trust. Hopefully, with AP McCoy, Mick Fitzgerald and Luke Harvey, you can see it.”
Chamberlin also accepts that he and his colleagues need to be happy in each other’s company – one of the most discernible differences between ITV and Channel Four. “You can’t force it,” says the presenter, who has insisted upon Friday night team meetings to develop the camaraderie.
He accepts that not every viewer will find favour with a format that has seen human and equine endeavour, particularly at the sport’s grass-roots, given a greater platform. “I don’t mind negative reaction in a way because people are talking about racing,” he says. “The only frustration was why so many people wanted us (ITV) to fail when it is in everyone’s interests that racing is on terrestrial television and works. I found that surprising.
“The most satisfying thing is when people approach me in the street and say they are giving the racing coverage a go and are enjoying it. We need to take the sport to new people. Only yesterday I was watching my son play under-eight tag rugby and they were all asking about the Cheltenham Festival. The next thing is to get them racing, stood down at the final fence watching the action unfold.”
Though the low-point was the collapse of 2015 National hero Many Clouds shortly after his thrilling win at Cheltenham at the end of January, Chamberlin says the high, perversely, was trainer Oliver Sherwood’s candour in the aftermath when he explained what the horse meant to him.
He says no-one has declined an interview – racing’s accessibility is in marked contrast to top-flight football – and that he was proud to present this month’s stable staff awards. Another highlight was the insight of groom Sarah Buckley when Dynaste, a former Cheltenham hero, ran for the last time. More such features are planned. “Without stable staff, there’s no sport,” says Chamberlin.
He is pinching himself that he is hosting the NH Festival. ITV, he says, want to capture the emotion of the winner’s enclosure where victory for old favourite Cue Card in the Gold Cup would be the story of the week – Chamberlin says the ovation afforded to Colin Tizzard’s winning warrior at Ascot last month was spine-tingling.
Then the Grand National, the ultimate test for any broadcaster. “The presenter I admire most of all by a mile is Des Lynam,” he adds. “What he did with the Grand National was in a different league. I grew up watching him. A bit like Des, I will not pretend to be a racing aficionado. I will be going about my business, getting the best out of other people. It’s not my style to educate people in racing about racing.”