Jamie Carragher’s Liverpool vs Tottenham exclamation “Mo Salah, you little dancer!” got football talking about whether TV pundits and presenters should be allowed to let their personal support impact on their commentary, but horse-racing had already given us a joyous example of the same nearly two years earlier. And in that case, every racing lover from Her Majesty The Queen on downwards had taken a view.
When Big Orange, trained by Michael Bell, won the 2017 Ascot Gold Cup in a thriller from the defending champ Order of St George, ITV Racing presenter Oli Bell ran down the track in celebration to greet the horse.
After regaining his composure, and his top hat, Oli, the nephew of Michael, was in the parade ring later. Preparing to grab a jockey for an interview, word came down that someone wanted a quick word.
“I was taken over to meet The Queen,” he said. “I was pretty nervous, do you take your hat off, how do you introduce yourself? And she said to me: ‘Oh yes, you’re that lunatic who ran on the track aren’t you?’
“I honestly don’t know why I did run after him, but I think for one brief moment I wasn’t someone working for TV at Royal Ascot, I was just someone cheering on a horse I love. And that’s sport, isn’t it? The reason I love racing and the reason I got into racing is because it allows you to forget who you are for a bit.”
And Bell believes that a bit of honesty from sports broadcasters might be a welcome corrective in the current climate.
“It might sound a bit self-indulgent because I was obviously the one running after the horse like a moron but, I think in any sport if you have got someone who is very excited, sad or whatever it might be that is one of the reasons people like watching.
“Because what is the point in trying to pretend? Carragher is Liverpool, Gary Neville is Manchester United, we all know that. I think if you’re being true to yourself the viewer respects it. That doesn’t happen all that much at the moment in the world, with the news and the politics that is going on, does it? I personally like to see people being honest.”
When not chasing horses or being sledged by The Queen, Bell presents ITV’s ‘The Opening Show’, which will be on at 9am each day during Royal Ascot this week. The programme is finding an informative, enjoyable niche as a mixture of a chat-show with racing figures discussing issues including the stable staff crisis, mental health, addiction and other topics relevant to the sport, as well as a more traditional tipping and preview programme about the day’s sporting action.
“We have a new feature that is our version of The Stig, called ‘The Insider’, with an anonymous professional punter. This gives early morning viewers an opportunity to get on the horses at the same prices professional punters are getting on,” he said. Bell also noted that another ITV Racing colleague, the Telegraph Sport columnist Ed Chamberlin who will be writing in Tuesday's paper, “has got an unbelievable knack of tipping the winners in the big races at the moment,” so there might be cards to be marked.
Like a lot of racing coverage, The Opening Show has several different types of viewer to cater for – the hardcore bettors, the racing fan who might want just a couple of pointers for the feature race, or perhaps the non-fan passer-by who is attracted to the spectacle of the major event meetings. Bell, who described himself as a “TV presenter first and foremost, and someone who knows a lot about racing” is well-placed to offer that variety, and has been broadening his CV at ITV with boxing, football and darts hosting gigs. It would be no surprise to see this likeable, self-effacing host slot into a big presenting chair in a football studio or similar over the next few years: we’ll have to wait and see if running on the playing surface becomes a signature move.
(ITV Racing: The Opening Show, Tues-Sat, 9am, ITV4)