The FREEbets.org.uk Interview: Jim McGrath
The latest instalment in our FREEbets Interview Series is with Channel 4 Racing's Jim McGrath. Jim is one of Channel 4's leading pundits on both flat and jump racing, and has been labelled as the 'Ultimate tipster'. Jim's involvement in racing dates back to early aspirations of being a jockey, and his admiration for the sport has seen him work up from 'putting glue on race-cards' to becoming the chairman of Timeform in 2008.
Jim's 39 years in the industry has also included successful exploits as an owner and breeder, which features the 14-race winner Decorated Hero, who was one of Frankie Dettori’s magnificent seven at Ascot in 1996. We've had the privilege of speaking with Jim about all things racing, from his early years in the sport, and everything leading up to him becoming one of the faces of racing every Saturday afternoon.
If we could start at the beginning, where your interest and affection for horse racing began? And your first racing memory?
Watching the 1963 Grand National won by Ayala at my grandparents house in Edinburgh. My father was in the RAF and, at the time, we’d been allowed 3 months to move back from Germany to England (eventually ended up in Gloucestershire). Anyway, we were in Scotland on a break and the GN was a big thing with my mother’s father. We were all allowed to have sixpence on a horse. I picked Forty Secrets, which fell. Even so, from that moment on I was hooked completely.
Many will recognise you as one of the voices, and faces of Channel 4 Racing, but not many will know you had early ambitions of becoming a jockey, and even spent a summer with trainer Bill Marshall. Can you tell us about your time there, and did you get an insight and appreciation into what professional jockeys have to go through?
Other than riding a handful of times at local riding schools, I’d absolutely no background or practical experience at all. Nonetheless, from Ayala’s National onwards I only ever wanted to be a jockey. I wrote to several stables. Only Bill Marshall’s replied and, eventually, I was given a pre-apprentice trial in the summer of ’71. Of course, I was hopeless and, ultimately, the head lad there, Jack Foster, told me to go back to school. At the time, I was disillusioned but ultimately it proved very good advice. They say little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but spending a summer at Whitsbury was useful and, through owning and breeding horses over the last 30 years, I’ve been able to improve my practical knowledge. So far as gaining any understanding of what jockeys go through, I was too young and stupid to think about such detail in those days.
You joined Timeform in 1974, and worked your way through the company, as a racecourse reporter, managing director, and became chairman in 2008. Can you tell us briefly about your journey with Timeform?
Timeform was a way of life, pretty much from when I started putting glue on the cards in July ’74 until I resigned in February 2009. Nearly all new recruits role up at Timeform thinking they are already racing experts. It usually takes most about a week to realise that they know little of worth (certainly with regard to form and analysis). However, if you are prepared to work hard and learn, it’s a great place to fully understand the minutiae of form and, also, the way the racing world unfolds. Umpteen mainstream journalists have kicked off there, including the late Graham Rock, as well as Howard Wright and Graham Cunningham, all three top-class operators.
You've had various roles within the racing industry, including as a member of the Jump Racing Advisory Panel, but you're most recognised for being apart of the team at Channel 4 Racing, and you were there at the very beginning in 1984. What have been the major changes to the sport that you've witnessed over the years?, and what have been the highlights for you during almost 30 years of covering racing for the channel?
My TV career began when, in keeping with pretty much the whole Press Room, I applied for the position of paddock commentator on ITV made vacant by Ken Butler, who had decided to retire. In the end, Derek Thompson got the job but I was also enlisted to cover for a handful of major racing days that neither Brough Scott nor John Oaksey (both leading journalists for Sunday papers as well as ITV commentators) could do. Therefore, the day Shergar won the King George at Ascot, Brough and John had to attend. Yours truly was allowed to front ITV’s coverage from Beverley. A low-key start, but a day I’ll never forget. My first tip, Chemin de Guerre, trained by Peter Easterby, won at 5/2. If only it was always so easy!
The 5-day entry system, 48-hour declarations, Sunday Racing, All Weather Racing, the emergence of Betfair, Professional Lady jockeys, the formation of the BHB and then BHA are just a handful of major changes to racing which have occurred since I started on TV 32 years ago.
Covering Cigar’s Dubai World Cup (I was allowed to host the show) has given me the most pleasure as a commentator.
Over the years, you've bred and owned horses with the likes of Jamie Osborne and Jonjo O'Neill, can you tell us about some of the horses you have been involved with?, and which horse has given you the biggest thrill / proudest moment?
The first horse I had an involvement in was called Carneades, who raced in the early ‘eighties, leased to the staff by Phil Bull. He was a bit of a disappointment when with Barry Hills and, eventually, was moved to Peter Easterby’s. Many of the team at Timeform took an involvement and he won a handful of races for us, though was disqualified from one of his wins for failing a dope test (countrywide batches of horse feed were contaminated by cocoa powder. The Sporting Life ran a story under the banner of “Timeform horse doped”, which Peter thought funny, though Mr Bull most definitely didn’t.
Toogood To Be True, trained by Peter Easterby, who won 12 races under Jumps rules, including one at the New Year Cheltenham meeting, is probably the best jumper I’ve owned, whilst Decorated Hero, who won 14 races for John Gosden, and was one of Frankie Dettori’s magnificent seven at Ascot in ’96, was bred and sold as a yearling by the late Reg Griffin and myself.
For anyone looking to getting involved with racehorse ownership, what's the best and worst thing about it?
The joy of a winner, however small, never goes away. It’s hard to describe accurately but definitely a great feeling. To me, as an owner, the worst aspect of racing is when a horse gets badly injured.
As a breeder and owner, Hypothetically, if you were handed an unlimited budget, which you had to spend on buying a single horse in training, who would you go for and why?
A top class broodmare prospect. Was fits the bill to the letter. An Oaks winner with a magnificent pedigree. One would have to be very unlucky for none of her progeny to excel and the fun and anticipation of them so doing would be sustained for several years at the minimum and, if proven right, for decades!
Working within racing, and simply as a fan of the sport, which are the races you look forward to most on the calendar?
The sheer variety of our wonderful sport means that, as they approach one after another, pretty much all our top prizes excite me.
Can you give our readers some horses that have impressed you thus far on the flat?
Magician and Intello looked really classy earlier this season and it will be fascinating to see how they fare in the top races versus their elders over the closing months.
As a punter, what has been your biggest win?
Don’t like braggarts, I don’t bleat when I lose, nor scream when I win. Those details stay in my betting diary, which I keep religiously.
And finally, Frankel or Sea The Stars?
As what? From a form perspective, in my opinion Frankel is the best horse ever to have raced in Europe. In terms of form, Sea The Stars is only a little way behind but he was a fabulous horse too and holding this opinion isn’t denigrating him.
A FREEbets.org.uk Interview Conducted by Antony