All in a day’s work: racing commentator Richard Hoiles *H&H Plus*

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  • ITV Racing’s Richard Hoiles on speed-learning racing colours, Denman vs Kauto and why he’s not “a yeller”

    I’m one of those nauseating people that had never commentated before, applied for a job in the Sporting Life, and got it. I was so naive, I didn’t realise at first that I had to send a demo tape; the rejection letter crossed with the tape I eventually sent, which got me the job!

    The key to commentating is accuracy and finding a rhythm that’s comfortable for the listener. The most surprising skill is not to over-learn, to trust yourself and allow your brain to be uncluttered. Some days I struggle to put a sentence out but others, in a competitive six-furlong sprint, I know I’ve got five or so lines in my head that might work. When you’re on it, you feel so alive.

    People think I learn all the colours the night before, along with every permutation of winning, so I can think of a clever line. Imagine how long that would take! You learn the colours in any field size in five minutes if you’re focused, when you do it regularly. It’s far harder for commentators from other sports to come into racing than for us to go into their sport because of the amount of terminology, the different trainers, jockeys, fences, and course configurations.

    You have to think of your audience; you’re not going to get away with screaming and shouting in a Fakenham four-runner race. The output’s different; on a family Sunday I might explain a few more terms on the way to post. I’ve never been a yeller anyway; I don’t have great vocal range. I’m more about language and description.

    Most of the best lines aren’t well-crafted masterpieces. Peter O’Sullevan’s “The mare’s beginning to get up” about Dawn Run in the 1986 Cheltenham Gold Cup, or “It’s hats off and a tremendous reception, you’ve never heard one like it at Liverpool” when Red Rum won his third National in 1977, fit exactly what everyone is looking at. The horses are the stars, you stay in the background, find something that matches people’s memories and become the soundtrack to a well-loved event.

    The race that people most want to talk to me about is Denman’s Cheltenham Gold Cup in 2008. My wife and I had had our first child five months before – the pregnancy and first few months were fraught – so I hadn’t got caught up in the previews and pressure of the Kauto Star vs Denman rivalry, which helped me to be dispassionate and just describe what I saw. Everyone was so tribal, with the Denman and Kauto Star scarves. I got into a rhythm, and on the final circuit, Ruby Walsh started niggling on Kauto. I said, “Denman’s got him at it” and the whole place went berserk. I felt in tune with the crowd, I could reel them in, and crescendo at the right time.

    Mickaël Barzalona celebrated before the line on Pour Moi in the 2011 Derby. With a photo finish, as the commentator you’re honing in on noses and heads and as I was doing that, the jockey on the outside stood up and saluted with his whip in the air. I didn’t know if he’d won and it was the flaming Derby! I said, “He’s celebrating as if he’s won the Derby.”

    Pegwell Bay was my favourite horse of all time. He was trained by Captain Tim Forster and was the first horse to win the two two-and-a-half-mile handicaps at Cheltenham in November and December, in 1988. He had a low head carriage and tried really hard in the mud, and I liked him.

    I wrote a fan letter to Capt Forster, aged about 17, and got a signed photo back. Three days later a brown package arrived. A note said, “I thought you’d like this.” It was one of his racing plates, which still hangs over my front door.

    Ref: Horse & Hound; 31 December 2020

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