JOHN McCRIRICK talks with James Rampton
John McCririck is candid in his self-assessment. "All I am is a pub bore with a microphone," he observes. "Anybody could do my job." Well, not quite; to be quite so eye- and ear-catching takes years of practice. Giving hand-signals incomprehensible to anyone not in possession of a Master's in book-making and talking 99 to the dozen in clothes loud enough to drown out the lager louts who invariably flock to him in the betting-ring, Channel 4's resident odds expert is the most easily recognisable figure in horse-racing. The phrase "shouting the odds" could have been coined for his benefit.

So it comes as something of a shock to learn that we only know the half of it. Andrew Franklin, the executive producer of Channel 4 Racing, reveals that "Brough Scott, our presenter, is on record as saying that `We see John's saner side on screen'." The mind boggles. "He's a larger-than-life fellow," Franklin continues, "and on occasions, he's even more over-the-top off-screen than he is on it."

But Franklin sees McCririck's - how shall we put it? - exuberant approach as an advantage. "Of course he's over-the-top, but that's his manner and his means of conveying his message in far and away the most difficult circumstances in racing broadcasting. He's down there among the masses, coping with the unwanted attentions of the `Hello mum' merchants, and at the same time, keeping viewers abreast of the changes in betting information."

For his part, McCririck pleads not guilty to charges of eccentricity. "I'm not eccentric or over-the-top at all," he declares. "I just use the immediacy of TV. I always say, `If I was at home, what would I want to know?' I'm lucky enough to be able to report from the betting-ring. I'm just giving the news as it happens.

"There are hundreds of newsreaders and DJs on TV," he goes on, "but I'm the only chap who goes around shouting in betting-rings. So there's no one to compare me with and say how useless I am. I can get away with it."

But doesn't his extravagant behaviour sometimes become a little de trop? Isn't it in danger of obscuring the information he is trying to relay? Apart from a flair for self-publicity, what else does he offer the viewer? Franklin has no doubts: "He does command attention when he's on screen," he argues, "but people enjoy that bolstering of what could be relatively dry statistics. One of the criticisms that is levelled at racing is that it's too complicated. Here's a bloke that's trying to demystify it and is doing a good job."

McCririck agrees that demystifying racing is an essential part of his work. It may be the sport of kings, but too many race-goers are made to feel like slaves. "There's no question that Channel 4 has helped break down barriers," he claims. "We're not just about egomaniacs shouting and screaming on screen. One of my cries is `Come racing'. It can be forbidding. Somebody coming for the first time can find that their badge is not quite right and that they can't get into a privileged place reserved for Lord So and So. Being snubbed turns people away. We hope to make racing more user-friendly, and welcome people as though they were guests in our own homes.

"At the moment racing is too sedate," he carries on at breakneck speed. "We've got to make it more exciting. I'm all for the `bouncy castle' syndrome. You've got to get new people in and give them more than horses plodding round paddocks. Channel 4 does try to do that."

McCririck's forthright opinions do not endear him to everyone within the world of racing. "My views are very unpopular in racing circles," he says, almost with pride. "But I'm sick to death of some of the people running the sport. Why is there this terrible secrecy about it? Owners who are tax exiles complain that the prize money is not high enough when hospitals are closing. People are so wrapped up in their own world. We'd all love to own race-horses, but instead of being grateful, they complain. It's obscene. The establishment get angry with these views, but it needs to be said. They've lost touch with the reality of what's going on."

McCririck promises to be equally animated this afternoon at the Derby, one of racing's biggest days of the year. "I'm sentimental and nostalgic about it," he admits. "The history and tradition of the race make it special. It dates from 1780. Can you think of any other sporting event with documented records going back that far? Because it's always held in the same place, you're there where your forefathers and all the coups and skullduggery have been."

Opinionated, outspoken, over-the-top - these epithets cling to McCririck like mud to horses' hooves when the going is soft. He may be all of these things, but he is never boring. "They threw away the mould when they made him," Franklin affirms. "That's gone in the car-crunching machine now."

Channel 4 Racing's coverage of today's Derby meeting kicks off at 1.25pm


Stable lads' salaries: `I'm appalled at the terrible pay for stable-lads. They talk about filter-down economics, but that has never worked. When nobles said, "Give us more money and it'll filter down to the serfs," it never worked.'

Making racing fun: `I'd love us to sing Rule Britannia or Land of Hope and Glory before big races. No doubt trainers would object that their thoroughbreds would get too worked-up. The professionals would also prefer it if there were no people there and no parades, but every race should have a proper parade. The horses are the stars and they should be paraded properly. The whole point is to make the show more accessible to the public.'

Subsidising racing: `I oppose subsidies. There's a market price to be paid for racing, it doesn't need government levy boards. All racing is animated roulette. You buy a horse for 10 grand and it could soon be worth a million. Why should I subsidise the owners' roulette?'

Racecourses: `You've got to be a marathon runner to get around to the paddocks and the unsaddling and the betting-ring. You wouldn't go to the theatre and expect to move around the whole time. I'd like the whole show to be in front of the stand.'

Racing in general: `Jack Jones [trade-union boss] used to call racing a "great frippery", and it is. Put it in the context of people dying in Rwanda, and it doesn't matter. There's more to life than racing. You've got to keep things in perspective.'