Sport on TV: Motley crew make best of their handicaps

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OFF to soggy Newmarket with Channel 4 for the first day's racing there this Flat season (Racing, Tuesday). When the going gets tough, Brough Scott gets going.

Actually, sparing no expense, Channel 4 took a horsebox-load of presenters up to Cambridgeshire this week - Scott, a race commentator, two analysts, a man in the betting ring, someone else to read the results and a roving reporter in the paddock. Sadly, there was no one out in the car park by the burger van considering the meeting from a fast food angle, but otherwise you would have to concede that the team has the event generously covered. For viewers, the proliferation of voices can sometimes prove a little bewildering, but if in doubt, bear in mind that a remarkably high percentage of those that aren't called Brough are called John.

There's no mistaking John McCririck, at least. He's the one dressed like Dr Who after a raid on a thrift shop. On Tuesday, he greeted us in a floppy purple hat and a grey jacket apparently stitched together from old car carpets. The gold chain holding his glasses on descends past his thick whiskers and both his hands flash with gold rings the size of bathroom fittings. When he isn't doing tic-tac gestures, he leans forward and struggles with his arms like a man trying to control a two-handled stunt kite in a high wind. It's just possible that he was employed to bring a touch of eccentricity to the proceedings.

What Channel 4 Racing have worked hard to do is tilt the coverage towards the punter. Hence the Dial Your Duo feature, in which viewers phone in with predictions in the hope of being picked out for a cash prize. By contrast, the BBC's racing coverage has tended to proceed genteely, as if royalty were present (which, of course, they frequently are).

When McCririck first appeared down there in the throng, shot through a telephoto lens from a position way off on a neighbouring roof, a cruel joke went around that this was as close to him as the camera crew would agree to get. But the BBC have felt obliged to respond in kind, recently appointing their own betting pundit, Graham Rock, a reserved man, let's say, who sometimes seems in danger of being moved on for loitering.

The point about McCririck is, irritant or not, he provides the coverage with a neat narrative device. Early on, he will mercilessly slag off a horse in a race further down the schedule. 'Any of you backing Prophecy in the Nell Gwyn Stakes,' he declaimed near the top of the programme on Tuesday, 'the bookmakers are delighted to accommodate you. She isn't going to win, I'm afraid.' 'Don't you dare back Prophecy,' he warned after the second race, with a wagging forefinger. And as the horses were finally lining up, you heard him cut in to stick in the boot one last time: 'Prophecy - no one wants it except the mugs.'

The result is, if you're a McCririck fan, you stay tuned anyway. But if you have your reservations, you still stay tuned in the hope of seeing his predictions go horribly awry. Thus when Prophecy burst through from the back of the pack in the final two furlongs to come home in an entirely respectable second place, I caught myself making Ian Wright-style celebratory gestures at the screen, despite having no financial interest in the race whatsoever. And I realised I'd been duped.

Out by the paddock, Derek Thompson managed to land the afternoon's crucial interview with the jockey Michael Hills, who had been scheduled to ride but who confessed that, after a weekend in Germany involving a large meal, he had been unable to bring his weight under control. Thompson, spying a conversational opportunity, asked Hills if he had any tips for those at home trying to diet. 'Basically, don't eat,' Hills said. 'Thank you, Michael, for those words of wisdom,' Thompson said.

It wasn't all showbusiness. The former jockey and trainer John Francome continued to unfold as a master of the nicely timed understatement. At one point we watched an over-excited horse warming up for a race by tearing around on its hind legs. 'Going down there a little bit freely,' Francome said, reassuringly. He is one of the few sportsmen on television at the moment who sounds like he started out in broadcasting, rather than ended up there. One day, all this may well be his.

Channel 4 Racing is also responsible for The Morning Line, an hour-long review and preview slot on Saturdays offering punters the chance to get on at the early prices. The tone of this show is sometimes painfully chummy and it seems to have been filmed in someone's garage on a budget of pounds 35 including expenses, but just the fact of its existence is remarkable and a tribute to Channel 4 Racing's initiative and clout. Armchair punters have never had it so good.

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