Sunday, 21 March 2010

Friday - This is it!


Firstly I must apologise that it has taken me til Sunday to write this - I've had my first event of the season this weekend so have been frantically trying to get two horses ready, kit organised, tests learnt, courses walked, parents briefed on how to behave - usual stuff. All in all I decided to grant myself the luxury of an extra couple of days to write this.

The last day of the festival dawned grey, but as soon as you entered the racecourse you could feel the excitement and expectation had gone up a gear. The first feature on the coverage that day was an interview with the clerk of the course Simon Claisse by the final fence. All the presenters went down there to discuss the final days racing and I tagged along as usual, and as usual it felt slightly unreal that I was able to do so! Post interview Dave Farrar had arranged for me to meet up with the owner of a company that puts together video packages of various stories and sells them to different media outlets. This was a very beneficial meeting as he asked if I could do some work for them over the summer. Networking continues!

First race of the day we watched from in front of the main stand. It was a cracking race with Barizan having to be ridden hell for leather to try to shake off his rivals most of whom were former flat racers so very quick. Although at one point he was over 15 lengths ahead the poor boy couldn't maintain it up the hill and Barry Geraghty encouraged Soldatino past him to win. But it set the stage perfectly for the rest of the afternoon.

In the second it was great to see Katie Walsh win again and the stands erupted when she did so even though the horse wasn't particularly fancied. By this point everything was gearing towards the Gold Cup and even though the much admired Tell Massini gave punters' pockets a bashing when he came "nowhere-in-particular" in the Novices' Hurdle I was so excited about being able to cover the big race I didn't really pay much attention to it (although from the agonised groans of many a race goer I was rather alone in that!).

And so the Gold Cup had finally arrived and I was able to experience the pinnacle of British racing at as close a hand as I could get without actually riding in it! The whole experience was incredible - first we went into the pre-parade ring where all the runners were being led around - I was in my element here as it was a chance to observe truly quality horse flesh at the closest quarters. Kauto looked every inch the athlete he is always described to be. He is a stunningly beautiful horse and it was hard to see any of the others beating him on their parading appearances alone. Denman also looked glorious, his chest is massive and you can see how he gets his "Tank" nickname. In fact all the Paul Nicholls horses looked in peak condition - even though they didn't feature greatly in this race, he really knows how to get them looking fabulous in their coats and so relaxed. But just to be irritating and to stay in my equestrian paradise a little while longer the one that really caught my eye was Calgary Bay. He looked like he could equally be about to perform a dressage test or hop round a cross country course as to perform in the greatest race in the world.

We then followed the horses under the bridge to the main parade ring. It was like going into a different world as there were people everywhere compared to the pre-parade ring where it had been relatively quiet. We managed to get through the crowds and were able to make it right onto the racecourse by the last jump where only the photographers usually go. As soon as the race started you could tell Kauto was just not getting into his usual rhythm and after his first mistake, which Ruby Walsh was absolutely amazing to sit to, he didn't look strong and he was so lucky to walk away from that horrendous fall that 9 times out of 10 would have had devastating consequences. When he got up I hope the feeling among punters was more "thank god" than "he lost me X amount of money". But then maybe I'm just naive. Anyway the race was still being thrashed out between Denman and Imperial Commander. Although I am a mega Denman fan, Imperial ran such a confident, smooth race that he really did deserve this accolade as did Paddy Brennan and the Twiston - Davies team. Anyway, after the race had finished we nipped back over to the walkway to follow the horses up into the parade ring. It was fascinating to be able to follow these horses on the part of their days journey in the public eye, and whilst there was the niggling feeling that had it been one of the big two that won, the roof would have come off, Imperial Commander was the thoroughly deserving champion on the day.

After the Gold Cup there was a rather interesting interview with Nigel TD in which he made a very barbed comment at the hype surrounding the Denman and Kauto Star anticipated showdown. The way the interviewer dealt with that was useful to listen to and there were certainly some tips to pick up from it. The Christie's Foxhunter Chase Challenge Cup was the next race and this saw the Gloucestershire trainer notch up a double when his son Sam (who I jumped in a pony club team with in 2006!) won on Baby Run. The yard capped off their tremendous afternoon when the 7 year old Pigeon Island won the final race of the day. It was great to see a local trainer doing so well and their excitement was infectious. However by this time it had got very wet and very cold, but Team Timeform soldiered on, although it was very nice to get a hot drink at the end of the day!

The whole week was one of the best of my life. I picked up so much about the presenting side of the coverage and also got well and truly bitten by the racing bug. I have made some great contacts which I intend to pursue in the near future, and also am aiming to learn as much about jump racing as I possibly can before I go to another meeting. Even though this is only the very beginning of my experience in journalism it has given me a massive hunger to follow the career, gaining as much experience as I possibly can along the way.

Until my next chapter of shadowing comes along, take care and don't fall off!

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Thursday - fascinat(ors)ing


Best day so far at the festival. Dave took me to meet a man called Robert (CANNOT remember his surname, must get it tomorrow otherwise will look like mega plonker!) who coaches BBC employees in commentating, interviewing and presenting. Our discussion ended up being at least 15 minutes long and I felt so privileged to be able to talk to someone who is high up in the BBC hierarchy after years of sports reporting and editing. He gave me some great tips particularly emphasising the importance of practice and listening to recordings of myself back sometime after they were done so I can listen completely critically without knowing what I'm going to say next. He also said to make sure that everything on radio sounded as conversational as possible as opposed to script read. I felt so grateful when he said I had a good base tone to my voice which would be able to go over loud background noises and especially that I could drop him in some recordings of voice overs and he would critique them - an offer which I will certainly take up.

For the racing today we started going to the usual spots of in front of the stands, the pre-parade ring and the main paddock, but then we moved right to the middle of the racecourse - literally next to the rails where usually only photographers go - confidence proving again to be key. This was an utterly incredible experience - being less than a metre away from the immense Big Bucks powering up the hill to the finish was a truly unforgettable moment. He is a stunning horse and you could tell really early on in the race that he was never going to lose - the gallop was effortless! I only wish I'd put my student loan onto him!

I have been building up as many contacts as possible, and the people I've been working with have been so helpful for this. I even turned away from the possibility of an early night to go out with the radio guys last night, which was great, firstly because I was able to find out about other contacts, secondly because they were a really good laugh, thirdly because I didn't have to pay for anything and finally because I got a free Guinness hat - reasons enough I think!!

Anyway I'm gutted it's the last day tomorrow - still haven't decided to put my money on the wonderful Denman or go with my gut instinct for Kauto Star, we will have to see, but I am looking forward to it immeasurably.


Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Wednesday - Hello leprechauns


Day 2 of the Festival dawned cloudy and feeling very chilly after yesterday's cruel joke that Spring was almost here. So again I donned the tweed (though this time with multiple layers underneath) and headed up to the racecourse. First off I went down to see the course being prepared and the horses on the gallops with two of the presenters Chris and Paul who were opening the day's coverage for Cheltenham Radio - it was great to see the area without the crowds although there was certainly a feeling of the calm before the storm! What I picked up from that exchange was how naturally Chris and Paul could change between their off air chatting to their on air character, it was very interesting to watch and certainly a skill I'd like to acquire.

The rest of the morning was fairly quiet but as the races drew closer I latched myself onto Dave Farrar again and followed him round for the afternoon. In the first race it was great to see two female jockeys come in 1st and 2nd - something that happens rarely in a mixed field. After this we went to the Guinness Village to find some punters to interview, when a proper scouse in a pink shirt came up to us, it hardly seemed like a glowing interview wrong I was. In the interview he said how he was backing outsider Peddlers Cross and would be a very rich man if he won - if he did he joked that he'd tell everyone it was him who said that and if not he'd steal a friend's name! Off the record he said over £100k was at stake. It was a great story, so when Peddlers Cross beat the hot favourite over the line everything went slightly mad. We finally managed to catch up with the very happy gentleman outside the tent where champagne flows freely! As well as the whole episode being a great story in itself Dave also gave me a useful pointer not to try to pre-plan or write stories at similar sorts of events - it's always possible to pick up threads of stories like this and carry them through. This was demonstrated later when another of the presenters managed to get an interview with Jeremy Kyle, where one of his points was then referred back to in a later punter interview.

It was certainly Barry Geraghty's afternoon, winning two races on the bounce, the Queen Mother Champion Chase at the expense of Master Minded who was going for a hat trick. Stepping away from the work experience role for a moment, horse - wise Cue Card really caught my eye winning the Weatherbys Champion Bumper on 40:1 odds - he was one of only two 4 year olds in the final race and swept up the final hill in such fantastic style, I hope to see a lot more of him in the future.

Today has been a good day for networking as I've met some pretty high ranking sports journalists and Dave re-iterated what we have been told in lectures about the importance of establishing a contact book as early as possible. Of course talent should get you somewhere, but undeniably much of it has to be helped by who you know not what you know. And also learn to appreciate the perks of the job - free champagne rather than food for lunch...well it would just be rude to refuse!

And so farewell to the day of Guinness, leprechauns and shamrocks and hello to hats, shoes and more champagne - bring on ladies day!


Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Tuesday - first day at the office


This is a "miniblog" that's flying off on a bit of a tangent from my usual efforts (do please check out my other blog - nothing like a bit of shameless self promotion here!); it's just that for this week I'm doing work experience at Cheltenham Radio, the racecourse's radio station and I've decided to document how every day turns out.

So today I arrived at the racecourse at 9am feeling rather smug as my friends who are doing proper paid work had to show up at 7am! Of course my first job was collecting tea - I would have been shocked if it wasn't, while the full time guys got all the technical stuff set up for the 10 o'clock launch. The three hours on air before the first race were pretty hectic - lots of traffic updates and weather reports periodically having to be rushed out to the paddock and people having to be herded for interviews.

It was on the first of my interview quests that I very narrowly avoided making a pretty massive mess - up and learnt what I'm sure will be a very valuable lesson - do your research, know who you're talking to. You see when Simon the producer asked me to escort Sam Thomas to an interview I was thinking, I recognise that name but from where, I have no idea. So while I'm walking to the parade ring with this very well - spoken, rather dishy chap he's asking me questions all about me, but I couldn't think of a thing to ask him back because if I did I'd let on that I couldn't remember who he was - naturally we ended up talking about the weather. This episode put me totally out of my comfort zone as I love asking questions and finding out about people whilst deflecting enquiries about myself (And yes, I get the irony that this blog is essentially about my own experiences). Thankfully the walk was a short one. Watching him being interviewed I established to my horror that it was he who rode Denman to his emphatic Gold Cup victory in 2008, but that he wasn't riding at the meet this year because he had broken his neck in a training fall. These revelations made the walk back far more pleasant, and that was probably the moment I started to really enjoy myself.

When the racing started things slowed down in the studio as the coverage for each race follows pretty much the same formula. I spent the afternoon shadowing the course presenter, David - with the aid of the passes there's pretty much access all areas. For the first race we were stationed in front of the main grandstand, near to the finish line - I know everyone says the atmosphere is incredible, but you really don't know it til you're actually there - it is unbelievable and utterly addictive. After Dunguib lost a punter in London £20 000 we moved to one of the walkways to try to find notable people to interview, this endeavour was unsuccessful so we ended up with a mono-syballic "enthusiast" from Cheshire. Second lesson learnt - good interviewees should be sought at all costs.

After that slightly embarrassing discussion and having watched a couple more races from various locations, we went to the pre-parade ring to see the runners in the Champion Hurdle walking around before they went up to the main parade paddock. The pre-parade ring is where the hardcore purists assess the best tips away from the chaos of everywhere else on the site. So when our passes enabled us to actually go into it David kept saying, "Don't look to your left".....obviously I did, and was met with about 200 pairs of seasoned punters' eyes boring into me. To say it was an experience would be an understatement, it was terrifying and I felt like a fraud, but at the same time it was completely and absolutely fantastic.

My favourite race of the day was the Glenfarclas Handicap Chase - it is cross country style - pretty bizarre in the way it twists around a course of fences that are a mix of the classic hedges and then gates, ditches and banks which is far more my territory as an eventer, albeit here with a racing twist. After the runners have negotiated this eclectic mix of obstacles any riders still seated go hell for leather up the finishing straight, classic race style. If anyone gets to see one of these races I would highly recommend going to stand in the middle of the course under the big screen - it's crazy, every time you blink the horses are going in a different direction; amazing fun!

Anyway, I've certainly prattled on long enough for one day, all that remains to be said is that I can't wait for tomorrow - bring on St Paddy's day and do tune in to 87.7FM!