Sport on TV: Beeb back a loser taking the pith out of Carson

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The Independent Online
WILLIE CARSON started Ascot week in generous mood. "The highest offer gets it," he said of the waistcoat he was wearing for First Show (BBC1) on Tuesday. On reflection, however, this gesture was not quite as expansive as it first appeared.

For one thing, the waistcoat in question looked, as did all of those Carson sported this week, like an industrial accident in Willie Wonka's chocolate factory. And for another, what exactly would anyone other than its current owner use it for? As a hankie, perhaps? Or maybe a present for a young daughter, something for Ken to wear the next time he marries Barbie? The options, frankly, are limited.

And this line of thought leads to a more serious question: what, precisely, is the purpose of Willie Carson himself? He was one of the most successful jockeys of his age, until a filly called Meshhed hoofed him clean across the paddock at Newbury, thereby persuading him that there must be easier ways to make a living. Whatever those might be, however, punditry does not seem to be one of them.

There were times during the BBC's extensive Royal meeting coverage when Clare Balding, Carson's co-presenter, seemed ready and willing to follow Meshhed's example. Like the moment when they ran their "Five Things You Didn't Know About [the trainer] Richard Hannon" feature, which could just as easily have been called "Five Minutes In The Cuttings Library".

The nuggets that the BBC researchers had dug up during their fag break included the claim that Hannon used to be the drummer in the Troggs. This is something which absolutely everyone "knows" about him, but which the man himself has denied at every opportunity.

The next bullet-point caption revealed that Hannon has triplets, two boys and a girl, and used to amuse himself by sitting them down in front of friends and inviting them to Find The Lady.

Cut back to Balding and Carson. "There's a great story about Richard Hannon," Carson giggled. "You know, he's got triplets, one girl and two boys, and he used to play Find The Lady with them." Balding bristled. "Thank you, Willie," she said archly (and she went to the sort of school where they teach you to give good arch). "Was that for the benefit of viewers who can't read?" Oooh, you could have cut it with a knife.

The real shame is that Carson was a cunning and thoughtful jockey who was never afraid to play a hunch about the pace of a race or the state of the ground, and won plenty of good races as a result. And he is not a paid-up member of the weighing-room trade union, who would never dare to criticise a fellow rider.

In fact, he is almost as ready to question a jockey's performance as the average punter in a betting shop (which, for the benefit of non- gamblers, is very ready indeed). Given a tightly defined role as a commentator on the finer points of race-riding, he might be an asset to the coverage. As a foil for the polished Balding, though, he is drowning as surely as Leonardo in Titanic.

Carson's waistcoats were not the only part of the Ascot experience which seemed to weigh against the corporation's commitment to taste and decency. Allowing Jeff Banks to accost innocent racegoers and quiz them about their outfits should also be a case for Broadcasting Standards.

Like every fashion pundit, Banks has been under the knife to have all of his critical faculties removed. This is why the clothes worn by every single woman at Ascot - and on any given day there are about 25,000 of them - are always either "wonderful" or "marvellous", and hats which force their owner to stand as stiff as a corpse for fear of toppling over are inevitably "glorious".

But there was one moment of blessed relief from the froth. On Friday, Banks was roaming around the paddock, asking assorted women how long it had taken them to decide on their outfit - two minutes was the usual reply - when an ill-shaven and, not to put too fine a point on it, plastered man wandered into shot. He opened his jacket, pointed to the label and said: "Look, it's one of yours, and it's falling apart already."

Banks moved hurriedly on to a new group of victims, but his dissatisfied customer was not easily deterred. Wherever Banks went, there he was, dangling the jacket in the background, gesturing first at the label, and after that in a manner which said, more eloquently than words ever could, exactly what he thought of its build quality.

So that was Ascot. Occasionally, of course, some horses appeared and galloped past the winning post, although this was something of which many spectators seemed cheerfully unaware. Not Clare Balding, though, whose father Ian, a trainer, had a runner called Halmahera in the Wokingham Handicap, the big race on Friday.

Halmahera flashed past the line locked with Deep Space. It took the judge 10 minutes to decide that Deep Space had won. "Eeeurrgh!" said Balding as the result was announced. It was by 20 lengths the most sincere statement of the week.