Barker kept on the back foot on Pitman's turf

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The Independent Online

Last year, the BBC focused their Grand National coverage on the retirement of the "Queen of Aintree", Jenny Pitman, an event sealed with a Gone With the Wind style kiss by presenter Des Lynam. They could not have imagined then that Des - not to be confused with "Dessie", that other grey-haired racecourse veteran Desert Orchid - was also saying farewell, not just to Aintree but to the BBC. His defection last summer to ITV created large holes in the presentation of BBC sports programmes, from Match of the Day to Sports Review of the Year.

So far, these have been successfully plugged, but the biggest test of the post-Lynam era arrived yesterday - four-and-half hours of broadcasting, up to 30 interviews with all sorts of racing Faces, not to mention seemingly endless loops of the syrupy theme from Champions. If the BBC weren't careful, the going could get really heavy.

Sue Barker had been nominated for the role of host, following the BBC tradition of having a presenter whose favourite sport isn't horse racing. Both Des Lynam, a boxing fanatic, and David Coleman, an athletics nut, had upheld this, so it was logical to have a tennis commentator fronting National Hunt's big day. Heaven forbid that the BBC should have an expert in charge when there are 13 million once-a-year punters out there watching.

This "jocking-off" of the regular racing presenter was particularly hard on Clare Balding, who had spent the first two days of the meeting ably fulfilling two contrasting roles, firstly as the cheerleader for a big BBC event, and secondly as chief mourner for the five horses killed. In contrast, Barker took over the pot-plant-fringed presentation platform with a determinedly sunny disposition, leaving Clare to become a roving reporter. Barker, who fronts the BBC's Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe coverage from Longchamp with a frothy Hello style - air-kisses with jockeys and so on - started out in a Dior-esque trouser suit but was soon huddling inside a fashionable version of John Motson's sheepskin coat as the Aintree weather closed in.

Inevitably, Mrs P was soon on to the catwalk to stake out her territory, making two references to Des that would have irritated not just Sue but also the producers. Most noticeably, there was no kiss between the two women, perhaps for fear of being mistaken for an episode of the nearby Brookside. La Pitman departed with a "je ne regrette rien" statement, leaving Sue in the thickening drizzle with her racecard well and truly marked for future years. There is only one Queen around here.

After a tedious parade of interviews with well-lunched faces, including a smiling, relaxed Sir Alex Ferguson (surely an impostor?), it was almost time for The Race itself. Martial fanfares signalled the alert for the BBC's regular racing team, dotted around various points of the course - Balding in the tense saddling-boxes, Richard Dunwoody in a nervy weighing room, Angus Loughran in a teeming betting-ring - and at last the viewers had something to bite on.

The race itself was a triumph for the BBC team and for National Hunt racing too, with all the emotions of a father-and-son pairing and a massive public gamble being served up for a second year running. Barker just about coped with the inevitable Irish occupation of the unsaddling enclosure, prefiguring the mayhem for barmen across Ireland last night. But it is time this great racing occasion had a great racing person to present it to the world. So, if you can lease a horse for the day, why can't the BBC lease John Francome from Channel 4 next year?

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