Sport on TV: Ups and downs of the Festival of emotions

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The Independent Online
IF YOU heard any unexplained dull thuds at around 3.25pm on Wednesday afternoon, it was probably the sound of nearby punters bashing their heads against walls in frustration, unable to believe that after all the hullabaloo of the Top Cees libel case in the High Court less than a month ago, they had not stuck a fiver on him in the Coral Cup at Cheltenham.

But if the backers found it hard to believe that the most notorious horse in Britain had gone and won a race at the country's finest jumps meeting, just imagine how the Channel 4 Racing team must have felt.

The libel case, as you will doubtless recall, involved the trainer of Top Cees, Lynda Ramsden and her husband, Jack, who sued the Sporting Life - and won - over an article written by Alistair Down, who is the newspaper's associate editor and also a Channel 4 pundit. Its most dramatic moment was the testimony provided in the Life's defence by Derek Thompson, C4's famously chummy paddock interviewer, while Jim McGrath, yet another member of the team, was also a witness for the defence.

All in all, a casual observer might have concluded, however wrongly, that the case was the Ramsdens versus Channel 4, and at the production team's morning conference on Wednesday, they doubtless discussed the vexed question of what their response should be in the unlikely event of Top Cees winning. And indeed, when the incredible happened and the Ramsdens' horse came home in front, the Channel 4 strategy duly swung into action. Unfortunately, however, it was merely the televisual equivalent of hiding behind the sofa when the Jehovah's Witnesses come calling.

There was not a mention of the High Court or the controversial Swaffham Handicap at Newmarket as Top Cees was led back in front of the stands to what was quite clearly a mixed reception, with boos distinctly audible among a smattering of cheers. Any members of the audience who were perplexed by the jeers received not a word of explanation, while other viewers up and down the land were probably adjusting the colour on their sets as the coverage turned positively pink with embarrassment. The look of relief on Brough Scott's face as he handed on to what was probably an unscripted commercial break was the comic highlight of the meeting.

It was the last thing they needed, after an opening day at Cheltenham 24 hours earlier which had included several unfortunate moments. Some would argue that the National Hunt Festival is the most exciting annual sporting event anywhere on the British calendar - and yes, that includes Wimbledon - so its acquisition by Channel 4 a couple of years ago gave the station both a major coup and an enormous responsibility. The pressure to excel could be felt throughout the week.

In the Champion Hurdle on Tuesday, for instance, the magnificence of Istabraq's victory and the sweet moment when Charlie Swan saluted the jubilant Irish was ruined for the viewers as the cameras switched instead to the battle for second place. It may seem like a small point, but viewers would be rightly outraged if, for example, an England goal in the World Cup final were to be followed not by scenes of the players' celebration, but of the opposing defenders waiting for the restart.

Barely half an hour earlier, what's more, they had committed the cardinal sin of broadcasting the wrong result, after a desperate finish in the Arkle Trophy. The judge took 10 minutes to decide that Champleve had beaten Hill Society by a short-head, yet somehow Channel 4 managed to flash up the result the other way around. Punters have probably committed murder - or suicide - for less.

It is only fair to point out, though, that there was plenty to like about the overall coverage, not least the daily late-night round-up slot, which allowed them to take a more detached approach.

On Tuesday, for instance, it benefited from the particularly smart piece of direction which had kept a camera trained on Norman Williamson as the jockey walked away from the last flight in the Champion where his mount, Shadow Leader, lay dead. It was a deeply moving image as the distressed jockey picked his way through a largely oblivious crowd, celebrating victory for the favourite, as a typically elegant voice-over by Down reminded us of the price of our excitement.

The problem, perhaps, with the live broadcasts is that the Festival paints its own pictures and communicates its own drama without any need for serious assistance, yet the Channel 4 operation is so mob-handed that everyone feels obliged to say their piece.

You did not need punditry to appreciate the rip-roaring way One Man ran off with the Queen Mother Champion Chase, or indeed the nervy moment in the winners' enclosure shortly afterwards when you feared the grey was about to blot his copybook by headbutting the Queen Mum herself. It is not so much a case of must try harder, but rather that they need to reduce the level of effort by at least 50 per cent.