When you hung up your microphone after 27 years of broadcasting, your relaxed, entertaining and informed style left racing fans wanting more. What was behind your decision?
I’d worked for 27 years for Andrew Franklin, who was the boss of Channel 4 Racing, and I’d seen enough of what went on to know that there wasn’t anyone better out there. And I felt that he should have been given the opportunity to produce Royal Ascot and the Grand National.
Channel 4 got the gig for making the current racing programmes on the back of what Andrew achieved. Not one single person throughout the sport, from Richard Hannon to AP McCoy, is more passionate about racing than Andrew.
Yes, I suppose you can call it loyalty. It was like working for Fred Winter for 15 years; I didn’t want to go off and start again with somebody else. It would never have been the same.
Watching the Grand National coverage on Channel 4, did you have any regrets that you weren’t there working with Jim McGrath and co?
I didn’t have any regrets whatsoever. In fact, I sat in the armchair thinking how nice it was being entertained. I thought they did a good job, though a few of the camera angles weren’t up to scratch.
If I’m totally honest, the Grand National is no longer the race it was originally meant to be – a proper test of jumping. I can see why they have altered the fences but it was quite clear to me that the horses don’t have to make so much effort jumping and this has detracted from the race.
The jumping discipline has been taken out of the event; it’s like taking the Bank out of the Hickstead Derby.
I hope to God they rename Becher’s Brook because that’s what it isn’t any more. There’s no brook, no drop; it’s just not the same fence. It’s a travesty.
What have you missed most since leaving broadcasting and could you ever see yourself returning to TV?
I haven’t missed anything. I never missed riding when I packed up and if you’ve got loads to do I don’t think you miss things.
Stepping down from the TV work has not made me feel left out in any way.
I might watch The Morning Line when I get in from riding out on Saturday morning, though if I’m honest, most Saturdays I wouldn’t.
In your opinion, has IMG improved Channel 4’s racing coverage since taking over from Highflyer?
The presenters are just a matter of choice. Some people like Fiona Bruce reading the news, some people don’t. It’s the same with the racing personnel.
But I have to say I was horrified when I came in from riding out on that Saturday in March when Newbury and Doncaster were abandoned to find that The Morning Line had been reduced to half an hour.
In Andrew Franklin’s day there would have been more chance of a pig flying up to Aintree than that happening. And it does concern me.
Andrew would have had back-up alternatives waiting in the wings, perhaps a look forward to the Grand National or the Guineas, even a look back at past Hennessys, all the sort of footage racing fans enjoy.
My worry is that the people now running Channel 4 Racing are not as passionate about the sport. If they can give up half an hour of valuable coverage that racing needs, then that’s a big worry.
How heavily involved are you in Clive Cox’s Lambourn yard, which you own and where you ride out every day?
Since I packed up doing television I have become the odd job man around the yard. I ride out every morning, which I love, and being able to do that makes me realise how lucky I am.
But basically my task is repairing all the bits and pieces that have been kicked and broken by the horses.
I also have a share with Clive in the dual-purpose horse, Poet. And that’s really the total of my involvement.
What is the plan for last year’s unbeaten juvenile Reckless Abandon?
I’m not sure which route they’re going to take with him. He’s two boxes away from Poet and spent the winter in the box opposite so I’ve seen plenty of him; he spends most of his time either asleep or eating.
If he could play football in his stable he would, he’s got unbelievable energy. He has grown and definitely filled out through the winter and you’d have to say he looks a sprinter.
When he won his two Group 1s last year he overcame a bad draw on both occasions and was definitely three or four pounds better than the result.
Having built your house at the yard, will you be involved in more construction projects?
I am going to try and build a couple of houses on some land I have bought.
I’ll oversee the building and do some of the navying, which should keep me out of mischief.
You rode 1,138 winners, won seven championships and landed the Gold Cup. Is there one moment that stands out above all others?
Yes, and I was reminded of it watching Hurricane Fly win the Champion Hurdle this year. Grandouet fell in front of Hurricane Fly at the fourth last and could have easily brought him down.
It just happened that Ruby Walsh, on Hurricane Fly, decided to go one side of Grandouet and he fell the other way.
That incident brought back the memory of what could so easily have been a first-flight disaster in 1981 when I won the Champion Hurdle on Sea Pigeon.
I was following the Irish horse, Ivan King, going into the first and thinking to myself, ‘What if he happens to fall, he’ll bring me down’.
So I decided to go one way and sure enough Ivan King came down, luckily, falling the other way.
Pure luck on my part, but that split-second decision was the difference between winning the Champion Hurdle and picking myself up off the floor.
When you retired from the saddle you trained for 18 months. Would you ever consider training again?
No, I see how hard Clive Cox works 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And for every horse that wins there are four with all sorts of problems and different things wrong with them.
All the Chief Executives of big companies should come and try to run a racing yard for a week, then they’d soon realise how lucky they are.
I tell you it’s the hardest job in the world and those highly paid CEOs would find it a much bigger test than the jobs they are doing.
Is it possible to compare the jockeys of your era with today’s riders? Are the present bunch fitter or were you and your colleagues better horsemen?
I expect they are fitter but I’d question whether they are better. I’d say Jeff King would hold his own against any jockey today, be it AP McCoy, Barry Geraghty or Ruby Walsh. So too would Ken White.
I think it’s got to the stage now where the jockeys are almost getting fitter than the horses and I’ve seen a lot of horses ridden into the ground recently and it drives me mad.
It’s embarrassing to see the gun put to some horses’ heads and being driven from the front and then not getting home.
Present day jocks might be fitter, though I’d be staggered if any could outstrip those weighing-room colleagues of my era, Graham McCourt and Graham Thorner.
In your heyday you were game for anything, including controversial brushes with the authorities. Are there fewer characters in the weighing room now?
I’d hate to think that was the case. I am sure there must be plenty and Mattie Batchelor is certainly one; it would be disappointing if the jocks didn’t enjoy their journeys to the races and all the in-between times you spend hanging around together as much as we used to.
I doubt whether they stop for a drink on the way to the races like they used to because nowadays they can be breathalysed when they get to the racecourse.
Is racing in a better place now than it was when you were riding?
Horse and rider welfare is much better now. Jockeys are looked after in terms of nutrition and on-course medical facilities.
There is a physio available on the course and if anything goes wrong there is wide ranging back-up and a lot of this is the result of work put in by John Oaksey and latterly Brough Scott.
Also those horrible concrete posts and rails are long gone from the racecourse and their abolition was a massive step forward in protecting horse and rider.
Generally it’s a much more horse-friendly environment. On the veterinary side the horses are looked after and attended from the moment they arrive at the course.
I think all this welfare is something racing ought to be proud of.
What change would you like to see that would benefit the sport?
There should be one day off a week from racing and a complete break between the jumping seasons. I don’t think there is anything better than when you have something to look forward to.
I always eagerly anticipate the new football season, but jumping just goes on and on to such an extent that it gets you down. Once the season ends there should be a couple of weeks to enable all those involved to take stock, and even better take a holiday.
Society today demands that we must have everything on tap all day, every day and even throughout the night in the case of some supermarkets.
Racing has become like that and I believe we would all benefit from a break.
You have written books that have appeared in the best-seller lists. Are you still writing and do you do much after-dinner speaking or talking on cruise ships?
I stopped writing two years ago, having produced 22 novels. And it’s a long time since I did any after-dinner speaking.
I decided to pull the plug on that and I certainly wouldn’t entertain giving talks on cruises.
I can’t think of anything worse than being stuck on a boat for days with all the people you’ve been talking to. I’d jump over board!
How long and hard did you have to think before accepting the position as President of the Injured Jockeys Fund, succeeding the late John Oaksey?
I didn’t have to think for a nanosecond. I was very honoured to have been asked.
John had done an amazing job for the Injured Jockeys Fund and if I can maintain it and maybe just push it forward so that it is a little bit more self-funding then I shall be more than pleased.
How can the IJF service be improved and what goals do you have?
Over and above the initial funding, Jack Berry House in Malton [see next question] is going to add to the annual costs of running the IJF, so we shall need to be more pro-active.
It would be nice if we did something for ourselves because the sale of Christmas cards and calendars come round only once a year.
We need a business providing a good service for people who are inclined to support the IJF and I am hoping we might be able to start insuring people’s cars and houses.
Jack Berry House, the north’s version of Oaksey House, has finally got the go-ahead in Malton. How important is this development?
It is very important and will mean an awful lot to jockeys based in the north. There won’t be any permanent residency at Jack Berry House but there will be facilities for jockeys undergoing treatment to stay overnight.
The fact that it is next door to Malton Rugby Club means that the two facilities should complement each other and it should be of benefit to the local community as well.
I have to say if you had five people like Jack Berry working for you, you could run the country; he has done an enormous amount for the IJF.
You visited the paralysed JT McNamara in hospital after his horrific Cheltenham fall. What can the IJF learn from such a very sad saga?
I’m not sure there is an awful lot we can learn. We look after Robert Alner, Wayne Burton and Isabel Tompsett, to name but three, who have suffered similar injuries.
Andy Stewart, owner of Big Buck’s and whose son Paul was injured in a winter sports accident, has been very pro-active and done an awful lot to help to ensure that people doing spinal injuries research around the world are not duplicating each other’s work.
Of course, we are hoping a cure or partial cure won’t be too far away.
Finally, you look in cracking shape for a 60-year-old. What’s the secret?
Mixing with young people and plenty of sleep. I’m mentally nine!