Welcome to The Paper Files – In this series of Interview’s we talk to Racing Correspondent’s from the national newspapers. In the first instalment, we talk to The Guardian’s Chris Cook (@claimsfive) about his introduction to racing, how he became a racing correspondent , racing rule changes and much more…..
Could you tell our readers a little bit about yourself please?
I’m a horse racing writer and lead tipster at The Guardian, where I work with Greg Wood and Tony Paley. I’m a regular on At The Races’ Sunday Forum and have also turned up at odd times on Racing UK’s Luck On Sunday and in racing-related magazines. It’s a very lucky position to be in for someone who’s loved racing since childhood.
When you were at school….. Did you know what career path you wanted to take or did it develop after?
I remember saying I wanted to be a jockey when I was 10 or 11 but, suspiciously, I never ever did anything about it. Now that the chance has unequivocally gone, I’m a bit regretful about that but realistically I’d have got buried on my first ride and at regular intervals thereafter until someone intervened to stop the madness. I also remember making juvenile stabs at racing journalism, basically pastiches of what I’d read in the Sporting Life and the Sporting Chronicle. We got the Life delivered on Mondays and Saturdays, I think because I’d begged for it. I eventually had a pretty good idea I wanted to be a journalist but a careers advisor at school put me off by stressing how hard it would be to get work. That was the late 80s, a really good time for newspapers relative to the present, so I don’t think she did a great job for me.
What was your first job after leaving school?
I studied law and did a few part-time jobs to keep me going, including a few Saturday shifts at Ladbrokes. After graduating, I was a solicitor for four years before I got a chance to do racing journalism from the ground up and happily quit to try that. I was pretty sure my parents would be disappointed but they couldn’t have been more supportive, which just goes to show.
Did you always have an interest in Horse Racing and where did the interest stem from?
As I remember it, I saw a programme called The ITV Seven listed in the TV Times and thought: “What’s that about, then?” Flicked it on and was slowly absorbed, aged about seven. Pretty prosaic stuff and certainly not anything emanating from a love of horses, because I knew nothing about them until that moment. My interest might have fizzled out, but for the fact that, as it turned out, my Dad had been suppressing his own interest in horse racing for about 20 years by that point. He’d had this Presbyterian upbringing that made him feel respectable family men were not supposed to indulge in anything so louche but now it was OK because he was supporting his son’s interest. So we learned together. We went racing at least once a month during the winter and after I eventually left the house, the need to talk about racing made sure that we kept in regular contact.
How did the job at The Guardian come about and how long have you been in your current position?
From law, I joined Racing & Football Outlook. The pay was low, so they couldn’t ask for much in the way of qualifications, which was just as well for me. I was there for four years. A colleague nudged me about a job as a racing sub-editor on The Guardian, so I applied and ended up landing it in June 2005. I was laying out the racing page and the race card’s, checking all the details and subbing copy. I did occasional bits of writing which became more and more over the years.
Can you tell about the best aspects of your job and the Worst?
The best thing is how close it brings you to the sport you love. It’s a great privilege to go racing as often as I do and even more so to be able to ask impertinent questions of the various participants. But that leads straight to the worst aspect, which is that you risk taking it for granted or not enjoying it as much as you used to. Every so often, you have to count your blessings.
Which Race Course has the best Press Room and Hospitality?
Ascot look after us very well, which is in keeping with the high standards they set in other areas. But I don’t expect to be spoiled and the basic facilities elsewhere are fun in their own way. The important thing is to have a seat, a space for your laptop, reliable wi-fi, a sandwich and a kettle. Without the sandwich, you have to go queuing for food and there are lots of days when you just can’t spare the time to do that.
What was the hardest Interview you have conducted?
Racing folk are really accommodating, on the whole, and I can’t remember an experience I’d want to complain about. There have been some distressing interviews, though, including Chris Kinane, who suffered a shocking head injury when a horse kicked him in the paddock at Wolverhampton in 2005. He was unbelievably brave, showed no self pity and the only sorrow he expressed was for what his family went through while he was in hospital. Some of the toughness shown by racing folk is quite intimidating. He told me that, years before his head injury, he hacked a plaster-cast off an ankle (which he’d recently broken for the fifth time) in order to school Strong Promise over fences.
How has racing changed for the Better and for the Worse?
Lots of things are better than they were, particularly care for horses and jockeys. I have the impression they were thoroughly taken for granted in decades gone by but so much work has now been done to improve safety at the track, to minimise risk and improve medical / veterinary assistance. The sport is more accepting of the need to appeal to the outside world and if you attend one of the grander tracks now, you’re much less likely to feel that you’d rashly blundered in on a private gathering of snobs.
I regret some of the loss of centralised power that resulted from the OFT intervention in 2002. In particular, it seems to me that fixture allocation should be the sole preserve of the sport’s ruling body. I hate the idea that fixtures are portable within a racecourse group, which makes some tracks so vulnerable to decline or closure.
I’m really concerned about the population of jumps racehorses in Britain. Two or three recent seasons suggested that we don’t have enough animals to sustain the racing we’re staging. I’d like to see some imaginative ideas aimed at supporting the flow of horses into that side of the great game.
What rules would you change in Racing?
I’d extend the punishment for whip infractions to include trainers and owners. The idea that jockeys should bear the brunt of enforcement action is just an expression of where the power lies in racing. It isn’t fair, especially where trainers and owners may have benefited in prize money from overuse of the whip. If you fine trainers and owners whenever their jockey breaches the whip rules, you can reasonably hope they will impress upon their jockey the critical importance of not breaching the rules and that’s how you ensure compliance.
In that scenario, a jockey who regularly breaches the rules would be at great risk of losing work. Currently, I think few owners and almost no trainers are particularly worried about employing jockeys who break the whip rules. What matters to them is that the jockey be effective and being seen to be really strong in a finish is quite likely to lead to more work.
I’d favour an upper age limit for horses taking part in steeplechases. Personally, I’d prevent those aged 14 or older from racing over fences but we can have a discussion about where the line should be drawn. My main point is that there should be a line. We all know from experience that steeplechasers decline with age and in most cases the decline is pretty steep after the age of 12, if not before. If racing is harder for those horses than it used to be, jumping must also be harder. Getting over a fence is surely a risky business if you’re struggling to match strides with younger sorts and then there’s the toll that the race takes on your ageing frame, perhaps leading to a long-term injury or even death days after a race, a consequence hidden from almost everyone. An age limit would be another little demonstration that the sport takes its responsibilities to the horse seriously and does not blindly trust all trainers to do the right thing. We wouldn’t lose much by taking 14-year-old chasers out of the game. I accept that some of those horses can still win races but whether they should be asked to do so is another question. My feeling is that, when they’ve reached that age, we should be finding them something less risky to do.
Quick Fire –
Best race ever seen?
2004 Tingle Creek (Moscow Flyer v Azerty and Well Chief)
Kauto Star (jumps)
With the rise of Social Media, how can Journalism and Racing, learn from their Social Media mistakes?
Both journalism and racing have learned to make effective use of social media. But racing doesn’t make nearly enough use of its archive footage and I’d like to see an official online representative of the sport’s history, posting pictures and video clips of greats from the past. If racing ever gets around to collecting its own official statistics, social media would be a great way to share and popularise those, along with sectional times and other data, like the distance actually covered by each horse in a race and their pre-race weight.
We would like to thank Chris for his time. You can find Chris’ selections and articles in The Guardian, both in print and Online. Or alternatively follow him on twitter (@claimsfive)
Interview by Rich Williams – arseonlinetips.