Horse sense struck down by foot in mouth

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The Independent Online
HORSE racing people are early risers: at a time when most normal human beings are rubbing their eyes and wondering if they have enough energy to turn the kettle on, equestrian types have already mucked out, ridden out and rubbed down, and are back indoors again in time to settle down in front of their very own chat show, The Morning Line.

Channel 4 has been criticised recently for reducing its output of programmes for minorities: The Morning Line is a potent piece of ammunition in their defence in that it is completely incomprehensible to those unversed in the ways of racing. But it's fascinating, in the way that watching television in a foreign country is fascinating.

Yesterday's programme was fronted by Jim McGrath, a personable form expert whose relaxed charm is belied by his staring eyes. He looks like a missionary, the kind of chap who might show up on your doorstep to persuade you to join the Temple of Temperate Tipsters. When McGrath recommends a horse, you believe.

His fellow experts on yesterday morning's show were Simon Holt, who looked just like Harry Enfield (who knows, maybe he is Harry Enfield, moonlighting between shows), Alastair Down of the Sporting Life, who looked like he had been dragged through a hedge backwards, and John McCririck, who was wearing an extraordinary chestnut-coloured leather coat and looked like an exploding sofa.

These four cantered briskly through the form for the day's big races, disagreeing amiably and cracking jokes at the expense of their absent Channel 4 racing colleagues, John Francome and John Oaksey. In racing, if you don't get up, you get put down.

No doubt conscious that too much discussion of weight and going can pall, the producer inserted items of racing trivia to enliven the mix. One question was: "Why was there no racing in Britain between 25 November 1967 and 10 January 1968?" The answer was "foot and mouth disease". John McCririck succumbed to a similar condition, foot in mouth disease, by regularly and loudly tipping Merry Gale for the afternoon's big race: the beast pulled up.

Sharper tips abounded earlier in the week on Sky in the final of the World Professional Darts Championship between Phil "The Power" Taylor and Dennis "The Menace" Priestley. Eric Bristow, the former champion, was interviewed shortly before the match started. "I just want them to play darts," he said, which was lucky.

Priestley and Taylor are good friends away from the oche and frequently practise together. In fact, they see so much of each other that they have come to look like identical twins: same dark hair, quizzical eyebrows and archetypal darter's moustaches. Luckily they differed in the costume department: Phil wore a blue shirt with bits of tin foil stuck to it, Dennis the uniform of his cartoon-character nickname: bozo v Beano.

Sid Waddell and Dave Lanning commentated, or to be accurate Dave filled in every now and then while Sid got his breath back. Sid has two modes: hoarse whisperer and screaming banshee. In the early stages of Monday's match he was the former, breathlessly elucidating the finer points of Priestley's technique, praising these "fantastically dedicated working- class sportsmen" before revealing that the game had leapt the barriers of class and was being watched by "Vicky and Tamsin at Roedean College".

But then Phil Taylor notched a vital bullseye and Sid went ballistic. "Brilliant darts!" he raved. "That's the best bit of bulling I've ever batted eyes on." He didn't come down from the stratosphere for the rest of the riveting contest, in one of the most entertaining displays of sustained hyperbole you will ever hear.

Touchingly, Sid apologised for his fervour at half-time and explained why it was necessary: "We've got about 1,000 screaming loonies here digging their darts, so we've got to give it the tonsillectomy."

Waddell is Britain's foremost experimental philologist, bending words and distorting imagery in the service of his overpowering excitement. "You'd have to have an ECG machine the size of Battersea Power Station to keep tabs on the heart rates in this room!" he estimated, shortly before reporting that "Dennis Priestley's darts are going in to the 60 at more angles than Hypothenuse ever dreamed of", thus adding another character to classical history. (While Pythagoras was hard at work in his study on diatonic scales and the properties of triangles, his mate Hypothenuse was down the tavern playing darts.)

Taylor turned on the power ("There's nothing wrong with his fuse tonight!") and things looked grim for Priestley, poised, in Waddell's immortal phrase, "with one foot in the crematorium and the other on thin ice". Sid doesn't mix his metaphors, he liquidises them. Taylor took the title, and Sid left the last word to his colleague Lanning, who was as wrong as he could be: "They talk for themselves, these darts."

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