Sport on TV: Tough riders, bad breaks and Gazza's funny bone

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The Independent Online
CARL was the veteran of, at various times, a smashed ankle, a cracked elbow and a broken arm. Richard had snapped a thigh bone, dangerously close to his back, when a horse landed on him. The scar tissue round Luke's shoulder looked like a map of the Thames estuary. We were only a few minutes into 'Fit to Ride' but the key message was already coming across loud and clear: racing as a national hunt jockey is almost as risky as being Gazza.

'Fit to Ride' was the first programme in the Champions series (C 4, Monday), a run of documentaries taking a hard look at what sporting people put up with and wondering why they bother. Why, for instance, would a rider drive miles to saddle up and compete for two-figure sums when a qualified doctor had calculated that any jockey had a 1 in 13 chance of hitting the ground (or as the doc put it, in a phrase you won't find in the medical textbooks, 'eating grass')? 'It's such a brilliant life,' one rider said, a remark which flew in the face of all the evidence mustered here, though he insisted it was a view shared across the board, even by 'jockeys riding the biggest heaps of crap'.

If it was doubtful on the 'whys', 'Fit to Ride' rode home strongly on the 'whats' and 'hows'. There was much use of highly sensitive microphones, enabling us to experience up close the evocative sound of horse's shin on birch-twig fencing and the despairing groans of winded jockeys as they parted company with their saddles. But the programme never overplayed the gimmicks and was, in one crucial respect, a model of restraint. After all, you've got to hand it to any crew that can make a 60-minute film about jockeys without attempting a single height gag.

Animal-lovers might not have warmed to the programme's strict emphasis on the human consequences of the sport. Any suffering the horses might go through was an angle 'Fit to Ride' didn't trouble itself with. Hard to imagine a film less smitten by the nags, actually - not even a token chocolate- box shot of them, steaming gently against the dawn sky. Then again, no matter how you look at it, a jockey falling on a horse is likely to inflict less damage than a horse falling on a jockey, so the programme's sympathies weren't entirely misplaced.

Among the featured riders were Carl Llewellyn, who won the Grand National in 1992, and Richard Guest, who came home directly behind him. Guest entered the programme limping terribly, and left it that way too. Llewellyn, meanwhile, was speaking to us from the sitting-room where he keeps the plaster cast which recently held his leg together. And these were the success stories.

Luke Harvey, on the other hand, seemed to spend a tragic amount of time on the phone asking trainers if they wanted a rider for the next day's 2.30 at Towcester. We never saw him reach the back of his address book, but presumably by then he's ringing local farmers to see if any of their drays need a walk.

At the time of filming, the jockeys were preparing for the Grand National, looking to get a crack at the Aintree finishing post - 'the hallowed lollipop' as they called it. (This was last year though, when the starting wire screwed up and everyone had to suck on that instead.) Carl managed to get fit and secured a mount. Luke was fit and phoned around a lot but couldn't even drum up a heap of crap. Richard had a horse but failed to get fit. We watched him take his mount across the fields a few days before the race. 'He's in terrific form,' he told the trainer. 'Unfortunately, I'm not.' It was an object lesson in stoicism. Here was someone on first-name terms with disappointment. Also, many surgeons.

Of course, when it comes to specialists, there's no greater specialist than Paul Gascoigne. But never mind the leg, what happened to the funny bone? Is he all clowned out? Formerly daft as a brush, Gazza now shows every sign of becoming as sensible as a commercial floor-polishing unit.

Not noticing this (or being unwilling to believe it), the Nine O'Clock News on Friday continued to react to him as if he was the fifth Beatle, interviewing him on his plane back from Italy (where he vowed, without belching, that he would be 'stronger than ever') and then sending a reporter to stand outside his hospital in London in the middle of the night. That reporter would have been best employed, surely, turning a bullhorn on Gazza's window and issuing the following demand: 'Unless you come out of there with a bedpan on your head, we're going home.'