Sport on TV: They're off...off the wall, off the rails and off course

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The Independent Online
An awful lot of fuss has been made about last week's documentary The Englishman and his Horse (Channel 4). This purported to be a searing expose of bumbling inadequacy among the stewards and officials of the Jockey Club, but in fact turned out to be nothing of the sort. It was part of the generally excellent Cutting Edge strand, but on this occasion a whetstone was sorely needed. The programme makers, having set out to demonstrate that the stewards didn't know what they were up to, turned out not to have much of a clue themselves.

The central premise seemed to be that because Jockey Club officials are elected to their posts by other Jockey Club officials they are not accountable to the general public for their actions. It was also suggested that because stewards are not paid for their duties they cannot be the best people for the job. Other countries, it was pointed out, employ professional stewards.

But underlying these far from earth-shattering allegations was a raft of more sinister charges, never explicitly made but none the less unmissable. Here are just a few of them. Racing types are often rich. They often wear silly hats, and they don't know why. Some of them attended the pro-hunting rally in Hyde Park. They talk posh. They are snitty with their staff. They are disrespectful to jockeys. They are confused by television remote control consoles. Also mobile telephones.

It is hardly the stuff to have them quaking in their boots down in Portman Square, although the majority of the programme's viewers have probably never set foot on a racecourse and may therefore have found some or all of the above mildly surprising. But the attempt to pin anything more substantial than mild pomposity and sartorial ignorance on the stewards was sadly misguided.

The programme makers made much of the reluctance on the part of the Jockey Club's public relations man, David Pipe, to allow them to film stewards at work on a racecourse. But given that Pipe was ambushed on his way out of a stewards' meeting to be met with the enquiry about silly hats, his attitude was understandable. Would the director interrupt an inquiry into a close finish to wonder why the jockeys wore funny-coloured shirts?

Once through the door, the cameras filmed the Sandown stewards trying to find out why a horse running in a flat race at Sandown had unaccountably veered into the running-rails, depositing his jockey on to the turf at high speed before continuing, riderless, at almost unabated pace. The stewards looked at slow-motion film from every angle. They sent someone to examine the ground where the animal had slipped. They then interviewed the jockey, who proved to be as bemused as he was bruised. No idea why he did it, the jockey reported. Oh well, the stewards concluded, nor have we. One of those things. This sequence was presumably intended to demonstrate the stewards' ignorance, but short of dragging in the horse and subjecting it to the third degree ("One neigh for yes, two for no...") it is hard to see what more they could have done in this case.

Having drawn a blank so far, the director resorted to asking stewards whether or not they were members of the Jockey Club. Eventually they found one who was, the Hon David Sieff. But even his evidence proved disappointing: no tales of aristocratic excess. "It's not an eating, dining or social club," Sieff explained. "It's a club to which you make a contribution." A bit like the Co-op Christmas Club, really.

Thus continually denied their helping of buffoonery, the Channel Four team were reduced to running some rather sinister Inspector Morse-style music over pictures of racehorses dashing up gallops, while stewards eulogised the Jockey Club and English racing in general. Don't be taken in, the music hinted - racing really is an aristocratic conspiracy to defraud the common punter. No, really...

No such dark theorising surrounded the RAC Rally (BBC2), despite ample opportunities for skulduggery involving tin tacks, revolved road signs and oil slicks. Steve Rider, a closet petrolhead, anchored proceedings beneath giant portraits of the two principal competitors, the taciturn and terrifyingly fast Scot, Colin McRae, and the flu-ridden Flying Finn, Tommi Makinen. Apparently, 2.5 million spectators were lining the forest tracks of Wales and the Midlands to watch their heroes flash by and drench them in muddy water. Which made one wonder if there would be enough devotees left at home to constitute a reasonable audience for the programme.

As ever, the in-car footage stole the show - McRae mishearing his co- driver ("I said Left!"), Makinen sneezing and changing gear in one breath. But best of all for the cynical were the crashes. The Frenchman Didier Auriol clipped a log-pile at high speed in his Toyota and was launched into a series of terrifying rolls. The soundtrack went something like this: "Zut, zut, ZUT ... Meeeeerde!" The car came to rest, utterly wrecked, in a ditch. Auriol murmured. "Ah. C'est bon." They call it sang froid.

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