Cornelius Lysaght

Cancelling horseracing tips on the Today Programme would be a mistake

Last week an article surfaced which sparked widespread consternation among horseracing fanatics and bewilderment for devotees of Radio 4’s Today programme. After almost half a century, the BBC apparently, are considering dropping their regular tips section from sports bulletins.

Now, if you fall into neither of these camps, this news is unlikely to alarm you. But perhaps it should. Because to many, moves like this are symptomatic of a larger issue – a creeping hostility towards betting – which is a leisure pastime enjoyed harmlessly by millions.

According to the Daily Mail, Corporation executives have discussed abandoning the section because the tips are feared to be ‘anachronistic’ and that it is ‘irresponsible to be seen to be encouraging gambling at a time when it is a politically sensitive subject’.

Encouraging gambling? Oh for goodness sake. This just goes to show the extent of the impact from some of the more puritan elements of the debate during the long wait for the publication of the Government’s gambling review White Paper, a wait that is now apparently entering its final furlong.

Fact is, this section of the Today programme rarely had anything to do with genuine tips, and more to do with light relief. Horses often with a silly name, or maybe an appropriate one connected to the news agenda, were often picked. For example, I seem to recall hearing the prospects of Cabinet Of Clowns being talked up for the 4-26 at Salisbury one Thursday in September during the political crises of 2022.

That runner was only fourth, so became one of the literally thousands over the decades to have been subjected to light-hearted derision by the main programme presenters, from the legendary Brian Redhead onwards, for their seemingly unerring ability to not get their heads in front.

Redhead’s pun-loving co-host John Timpson famously teased sports reporter Mike Ingham in the style of Shakespeare’s Richard III after news of another loser with: “A horse, a horse, Mike Ingham for a horse.”

When the feature was invented in the summer of 1977 it was intended to provide some moments of light relief during a programme that in those days was so often concerned with the deep-rooted issues dividing 1970s Britain.

And in my experience the millions of listeners each week absolutely get that, positively relishing the whole thing: when I was BBC racing correspondent one of the first questions many people I encountered asked about my job – with a big micky-taking smile – was whether I did the Radio Four tips and when there was last a winner, if ever (they are not quite as bad as folklore will have it). Not one ever mentioned betting on them.

They have become nearly as much a part of the varied fabric of Today as Thought For The Day or the review of the papers, and while, yes okay, they are possibly anachronistic in the 2020s, lots of things in our society can be seen as a bit odd but that does not make them bad or lacking entertainment value – quite the opposite in fact – and I believe many Today devotees will miss the fun if they are dropped.

As an aside, regardless of anything else they also represent a priceless regular mention for a sport that can do with all the mentions it can get.

And betting plays a vital role in keeping that sport running, providing £350m to horseracing annually through the levy, sponsorship and media rights.

Of course, gambling is a red-hot topic as arguments continue about updating regulations to make them fit for the more digitalised age in which we live, but any changes must be sensible and proportionate.

Everyone agrees that potentially vulnerable people must be protected and changes in that direction will be welcomed. But equally all sides need to recognise and respect that betting is a legitimate and harmless pastime for millions of people – just like tuning into the Today programme. It is neither fair, helpful or appropriate to treat a pastime enjoyed by millions as some sort of toxic annoyance that should be shunned. As an ardent fan of horseracing and the BBC, I hope this article proves false.

Cornelius Lysaght - Journalist, broadcaster and BBC horse racing correspondent between 2001 and 2020

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