Painting The Picture - Racehorse Commentary

Features | 25th January 2022

As well as informing what is going on in a race, the commentators help build the excitement and increase the enjoyment of what is happening on the track.

It’s not a job for the feint‐hearted. Trying to paint the picture of a big race with dozens of runners ‐ often wearing similar colours and having hard‐to‐pronounce names – takes incredible skill and practice.

The current crop of racing commentators have taken the profession to an extraordinary level. Here three of the best remember how they became commentators, describe the skills you need to succeed and reveal some top tips for budding race callers.

Richard Hoiles – ITV Racing commentator

The path to becoming ITV’s lead commentator started when Richard Hoiles answered an ad in the Sporting Life.

He was working as an accountant when a recession‐gripped Britain stalled his career progress. It led to a switch to join SIS as a commentator calling races for the nation’s betting shops.

Richard revealed: “At the time I’d never done a commentary in my entire life.

“I never grew up wanting to be a commentator – I was a qualified accountant so I’d done lots of presentations and a bit of acting so I had no fear of public speaking.

“My knowledge of racing was very good. As a kid I loved numbers and anything statistical so racing appealed from that point of view.

“The reason I got the job with SIS was that they were actively looking to replace the commentators that were around at the time. They wanted it to be slightly more entertaining and they were on the lookout for younger talent.

“To be a commentator you have to be accurate. If you’re not accurate it doesn’t matter how good you are in other areas.

“Rhythm is also important – finding the pace of the race and the right pace of your delivery so it sounds easy on the ear for the viewer or listener.

“Then it comes down to personality. You just need to let the way you are come out – there’s no point trying to pretend to be anyone else.”

Top tip: Simply to practice. I always suggest to anyone who wants to be a commentator to learn the colours five minutes before a race. When they jump off, just list the horses names in order. It teaches your brain to recognise things very fast.

This video of another great commentator, Mark Johnson is great example of why preparation is key!

Simon Holt – Racecourse commentator

For more than 15 years Simon Holt was the voice of Channel4’s racing commentaries.

He has always combined the role with being a racing writer and he is a successful tipster for It was while working at the revered newspaper of the same name he first became a racing commentator.

Simon said: “It was a little bit of a right place, right time moment. I’d just started working at the Sporting Life newspaper and, while I was concentrating on journalism, I had done a commentary at a point‐to‐point.

“In around 1987, SIS started broadcasting pictures into betting shops for the first time. I was encouraged to put in a demo tape and they liked it.

“Eventually I went to Folkestone with veteran commentator Raleigh Gilbert and the first race I called was a four‐runner seller for two‐year‐olds. You cannot start any lower than that.

“It was slow to begin with but gradually I got better meetings. It was simply something I found out I could do. It was a lucky break.

“Preparation is really important. Learning the colours is the big thing as well as knowing who is riding each horse and a bit of background about them.

“I would tend to have a look at the colours the day before. When I started, long before the internet came along, you literally had to draw the colours with felt tips pens when you got to the racecourse.

“We have it a lot easier now but the scrutiny is much greater. Everyone can see everything – they have a great big screen in front of the grandstand at most tracks and the crowd responds to every incident. You have to be a lot more accurate but we do have certain advantages compared when I started out.

“I’m not very good at distinguishing the colours when an owner has a lot of horses in one race. I’m ok if there’s two or three different coloured caps but when there’s six, like with JP McManus in last year’s Grand National, I really have to concentrate.”

Top tip: Diction is very important. You’ve got to have clear diction so you can be understood and then it’s just the nuts and bolts of the job – accuracy and the element of performance.

John Hunt – BBC 5Live commentator

Ex‐policeman John Hunt got his break doing betting shop voice overs for Ladbrokes before progressing to racing commentaries with SIS.

He now can be heard on racecourses and across the BBC commentating on a range of sports, including racing for 5Live.

John said: “Looking back, the very first time I realised I could spot horses and convey how they were going came in my youth when helping my dad pick his horses out then watching them race on telly.

“I didn’t truly realise I could do it until much later. I was in the police serving at Kilburn in North London when my wife found an advert in the Harrow Observer for the job as trainee broadcaster at Ladbrokes on their in‐shop service.

“They let me loose on greyhound commentaries. It was a brilliant grounding for pace, identification and timing.

“I did that for a couple of years then SIS were looking for new commentators and I threw my hat into the ring. Even then, I didn’t realise until I did it that I could do it.

“It sounds mad but I used to keep the Sporting life every day – I had months and months of them. The only clue you had in the overnight declarations, before computers, was the number of days since they last ran.

“Before racing I would look at a specific horse, work out the date when he last ran and I’d pull out the coinciding Sporting Life to get the colours description. It used to take hours but it was a good grounding – they were hard yards.

“It was an effective way of learning and I don’t regret having to do it but it’s obviously way, way easier now with technology.

“The biggest challenge of commentating is trying to make sure you can find the right words and hit the right note for the right occasion ‐ doing the big races justice.”

Top tip: Practice, practice and practice again. It reminds me of the 10,000 rule – someone only becomes proficient at something when they’ve done it 10,000 times. You develop a mental muscle memory which can be applied to most races and that takes persistence to develop.