Sport on TV: Beaming up a vision of racing in the raw

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THERE will be upwards of a quarter of a million people at Epsom this Wednesday to witness the Derby live, while a further three million - variously 'working at home', 'off sick', or bold enough to have the telly on in the office - will be tuning in to Channel 4 Racing. But by far the greatest share of viewers - something in the region of six to eight million - will be consuming the race via the programme beamed into every betting shop in the country by Satellite Information Services (SIS).

It's hard to imagine now in the days of the information highway but, until seven years ago, betting shops had no dedicated television service to provide day-to-day pictures of horse racing around the country. If I went to my local London shop to bet, I had to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Cypriot tailors and Chinese waiters and stare at the speaker mounted on the wall, which gave out the prices and race commentaries.

We were blind men trying to visualise the world outside, waiting for a mention of our horse - was it being held up or had it just given up? All the oaths, insults and exultations would be hurled, multilingually, at this speaking box, for that was all we had to go on.

Now that the millions of daily betting shop punters have been liberated from their darkness by SIS, it might seem churlish to try and analyse what they are actually delivering, but in terms of 'sport on television' it must be right up there with the coverage of live football and Wimbledon in terms of viewing figures.

Visiting my small town betting-shop last Thursday for a sustained spell in front of the SIS screen, the difference between racing as it is packaged for the BBC or Channel 4, and racing as the raw in-put of the betting industry was soon apparent. SIS usually starts up around 10am, providing an ultimately mind-numbing re-run of all the day's previous racing.

This meant 30 races, back to back - Cartmel looks like it must be on a different planet, with a strange phenomenon called sunshine. Fun-fairs and holiday caravans can be glimpsed amid rolling fields and spreading oaks. But after 90 minutes it's like being in Groundhog Day, especially when, after a brief interlude to preview the golf, they start to re-run all those races over again.

There's no in-vision presenter, just a series of dark-brown, male voices, one of whom, Robert Cooper, eventually takes up the reins as we move into live action, albeit at a rainswept Romford dog track. Soon Hereford, set in an industrial estate, comes on line and the screen splits to show Adrian Maguire lobbing down past DIY warehouses to the start, while over at Romford the four-dog pauses for a crap on the in-field.

Cooper, like an expert flight traffic controller, handles dog-commentaries, latest shows, forecast returns while on stand-by to cue somebody else's commentary at Hereford. The race unfolds and you quickly become aware of the unusual number of high angles used in the presentation - SIS uses Racecourse Technical Services, whose prime role is to provide 'patrol' films for the racecourse stewards and authorities, hence the all-seeing crane shots.

But when a horse called Charles Henry jumps out through the wings of a fence, there's no cutting back to see how he is - this is instant, on-screen data. The horse is now history. Similarly, On the Count, the well-fancied favourite in the first at Carlisle, drops out of the picture after a furlong, having broken down, rating only a brief mention in the torrent of information. 'The hare's running at Sheffield . . .' Cooper intones without a hint of bathos.

Meanwhile at Brighton, the stewards are inspecting after the first race looked more like a moto-cross scramble through mud. Four minutes after this announcement comes the news that racing there has been abandoned. Suddenly we're back at Carlisle on a shot of two men in grey suits and brown trilby hats - they are stewards making an inspection because the ground there might be too firm]

But then there's a sudden burst of techno-rock and a Derby promo explodes with the sepulchral message: 'If You've Not Had a Bet Yet, Better Look at Those Prices Now]' Possessed, brain-washed, microwaved I reach for an ante-post slip . . .

In this aspect of its broadcasting, SIS - which is largely bank-rolled by the bookies - resembles the American home-shopping channels. No punter enters a betting shop innocent of intent, but SIS can make damn sure you follow up with an investment. Indeed, without this, their pictures and information make no sense.

But then again, in a subversive way, maybe they do. By stripping out the presentational niceties and covering the 'gaff' tracks shunned by mainstream TV, by showing the amateurish disdain of local stewards, the frequent rough-riding, the mediocre animals, the half-filled enclosures, SIS inadvertently gives a truer picture of British horseracing than anything you will get this Wednesday.