Ellie Kelly caught up with ITV’s Oli Bell, ahead of the presenting The Opening Show at the Cheltenham Festival to find out how it all began and just what his job involves.
ITV’s coverage marks the first time the channel has screened live racing from the Cheltenham Festival, during which horses and their riders will battle it out for prize money in excess of £4.1 million.
You could say Oli was born for the job. He looks quite at home with a glass of champagne in hand during our interview and he has an enviable racing pedigree. His uncle is Michael Bell, a prolific racehorse trainer with over 1000 winners. Whilst his father Rupert is a sports broadcaster who is most at home in the realms of equestrian sport and racing. He is perhaps most famous for being “the voice of Radio Badminton” and is a familiar voice on talkSPORT.
Oli’s paternal grandfather was involved in owning racehorses and he claimed that first sparked his interest.
“When I was very young, I used to watch the racing with my grandfather at home. I always loved being around horses but particularly the thrill of racing so I always knew that was what I wanted to go in to, it was just a question of what field. When I realised I was a terrible rider and I hated early mornings, I knew I couldn’t be a jockey or a trainer.”
To him, his father Rupert seemed to have the best of both worlds – reporting on racing and so Oli decided that a career in broadcast was the way forward. He felt university wasn’t for him and had already started to pursue his ambitions as a radio DJ on his school radio channel – Oscar Radio where he did the breakfast show one morning a week from the age of 15.
“Having dipped my toe in, I knew then that I wanted to pursue it.”
At 16, Oli worked for his father at The Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials.
“My first ever proper interview was after the dressage and I thought that a high mark was what was needed to lead this phase. So I said to this rider who came out with a huge score and said “Congratulations, what a wonderful performance”.
The rider looked like they were going to punch me and that is when I learnt to do my research.” He laughs. “Dad thankfully gave me another opportunity so I did Burghley for another few years, I was very lucky to have that opportunity. But you still have to prove you can do it and hopefully over time, I have done that” he says.
“I didn’t want to go to uni and I got awful grades – I just wanted to bet and watch racing” he explains.
“From there I sent off a CV to Racing UK to make coffee and I had a screen test when I was 18 and they offered me a job off the back of that” he explains.
Oli worked behind the scenes there for a few years, presenting on the odd show before he was offered an opportunity in Australia to present racing for “Sky Australia”. An incredible life experience at the age of just 22.
“I was basically paid to do what I love – in Australia” he laughs.
Oli is a regular fixture on ITV’s racing coverage. He can be seen most weeks alongside main anchor, Ed Chamberlin, with Richard Hoiles as lead commentator and the likes of Frankie Dettori, Victoria Pendleton, Hayley Turner, Mick Fitzgerald, Jason Weaver, Luke Harvey and Brian Gleeson also contributing.
The first month of ITV’s racing coverage they were thrown a few curve balls. These included horrendous weather at Cheltenham on New Year for the opening show which lead to a number of non-runners.
“I’ve presented racing for ten years now and that weather was the most brutal yet. For a new team both behind and in front of the camera, it was tough and they handled it well.”
Oli believes this baptism by fire meant the team had to learn rapidly what the viewers did and didn’t like about the new racing programme. Aside from weather, another major challenge facing a racing or equestrian broadcast team is serious rider injury or horse fatalities.
“The awful situation with Many Clouds, that was something so tragic and unexpected. It was difficult to get the tone right in our job as Presenters” he admits.
“I think the raw emotion that we all felt that day, hopefully was conveyed. Oliver Sherwood (Many Clouds’ trainer) and his team were amazing and we were very grateful to them that they spoke to us and handled what must be the most brutal situation for those involved”.
“This is sadly something that happens in racing though. I like to think that in the early stages as the broadcasters for racing we have shown that we can deal with what is presented to us on the day and we understand what is needed to convey the emotions at that time, be it positive or negative” he says.
Naturally Oli does indulge in the odd bet.
“Oh yeah! It’s one of the charms of racing isn’t it?” he says. “There’s a story at Cheltenham last year: I did a preview night in Ireland with Ruby Walsh and AP McCoy and I heard an Irish chap talking at the bar about Hercules for the JLT Novices Chase and I thought it was interesting that this guy was talking so highly of him. So I put a few quid on him at 50-1 for Cheltenham. That would be the best winner I’ve had but I haven’t had many since though” he smiles ruefully.
When on the job, Oli will never bet.
“Personally, I believe you have to look at the field unbiased. But I would know other broadcasters who would cheer on a horse and that is their style” he says.
Whilst Oli has previously played football to elite level and was a professional poker player for a year, he now has little time for other interests. It is clear that racing and his job is very much his passion. Lucky guy!
“I’m very sad really. I don’t have a social life” he smiles “I watch racing and read the Racing Post every day because I’m genuinely interested. When you are in it as much as we are. You just absorb it naturally so I don’t have to sit down the day before to do my research.”
The art of Oli’s Presenting role is not one of analysis but one of communication between the person he is interviewing and the audience. Some of whom may know very little about racing.
“I’m not there to give my opinion on a race. My job is to get the best out of the guest or jockey I am interviewing. I need to know what I am talking about enough that if I’m ever thrown a curve ball I can back it up. But fundamentally not be trying to show I know too much. I need to pose questions that will give answers to people who don’t understand racing so that they can learn and come along on the journey with us” he explains.
This is a skill that Oli has had to adapt to in his new ITV role because coming from a specialist channel like Racing UK where he could assume the audience understands racing and its terminology to a mainstream broadcast channel where the remit is to educate and interest a less knowledgeable viewer as well as the avid fan.
“The other day I was annoyed with myself because I failed to pick Ruby Walsh up when he used the term “racing behind the bridle” in an interview. To a lot of people in racing I would never have to say “what does that mean?” But actually many people, even racing purists might not understand what that means. So I am learning on the job as well but I enjoy that challenge. Ultimately I’m there to ask questions not to say what I think and I quite enjoy that” he says.
The channel’s coverage features 20 hours’ live footage, taking in five races per day, going behind the scenes at the course, featuring interviews with key jockeys, trainers and racing legends, sampling the atmosphere in the grandstands, all leading up to the Gold Cup on Friday afternoon.