Richard Hoiles talks The Art of Commentary
After reaching mainstream news and social media fame with his calling of the Ascot Gold Cup as well as standing in last minute for the John Smith’s Cup and mixing it with hip-hop stars Reggie and Bollie, Richard Hoiles took some time out of his busy schedule to talk to us about the art of commentary.
How did you make your first steps into horse racing commentary Richard?
Mine was a rather unusual start in that I just applied for a job via an advert in the Sporting Life despite having no previous broadcast experience. I was so naïve I didn’t even realise you needed to send in a demo tape which then crossed with a rejection letter in the post. Thankfully SIS liked what they heard and invited me in for a trial and it all started from there.
I was a qualified accountant at the time and having got my exams quite young decided to try and see if I could break into racing. I had followed it madly since I was young and was a member of the Racegoers Club. I’ve found the key to commentating on the sport is really to have followed racing from as early an age as possible.
Can you remember your first day calling on a racecourse?
My first calling day was at Bath on Cup Final day in 1992. In those days there were separate racecourse and betting shop commentaries with mine going into the shops. It seemed so bizarre that you could stand in a box on a windswept roof and be heard all over the country that I had to go into my local shop the following day to listen to the replay to believe it had actually happened!
How much work and preparation goes into a day’s commentary?
I know where I’m going to be quite a long way in advance. For my ITV work we actually sort out the whole year in advance, as I used to with Simon Holt when I was with Channel 4. As regards the racecourse we tend to know on average about three months beforehand.
The background prep – printing of colour sheets, making notes, overnight prices, writing out the draw on the Flat will all be done the night before. As regards learning the colours, other than particularly tricky races then I will only do that when the jockeys come into the paddock or the runners are on their way down to the start.
The key is just short term retention as if you tried to learn them all in advance and one owner had several runners on the card your brain would associate more than one name with the same colours which would be dangerous.
Are there any tracks that provide particular challenges?
Height is key as you get a far better perspective of both the distance between runners and a clear sight of a greater number of horses. Round courses are easier than straight courses and the colours are far easier to learn where you also have a good clear sight of the paddock. Since the new stand opened Doncaster has always been a favourite whilst in terms of beauty Goodwood on a sunny day is just superb though the races can be messy.
During my Hong Kong stint I always had to pinch myself every time I called a night meeting at Happy Valley – a must visit if you get the chance. The least favourite are where commentary boxes are low or any day in fog or mist which really are the worst conditions to call in.
Are there any difference when calling on the Flat compared to the Jumps?
Slightly, mainly in terms of tempo but the fundamental mechanics are very much the same. Getting through the entire field as quickly as possible is important in giving you comfort that you know everything and that would be the same for both codes.
I would write out the draw on the Flat and draw a course map with numbered fences and hurdles for the Jumps so the preparation is a little different. These days with no clearly defined seasons you can be switching between codes on a weekly basis so we all get used to it.
What top tips can you provide to anybody looking to make their way into commentary?
It is mainly just to practise focusing on accuracy and rhythm and making every word count. A wide vocabulary as opposed to stock repetitive phrases is also good to try and develop. Be aware of the key stories but don’t pre-prepare lines which often seem manufactured, keep relaxed and trust yourself to find the right words to fit the situation.
Whilst commentating itself can be a solitary business in fact you are very much part of a team in terms of those behind the scenes providing camera shots and the directors choosing which to take.
As such I will always prefer having open talkback (where you can hear the director the whole time) as it gives me the clues as to what it about to happen. A good director and vision mixer will get to know form the tone of my voice when I am struggling with shots and not stay on those for too long. I am extremely lucky to have worked with many good ones throughout my career and never fail to appreciate the great lengths good cameramen go to in all weathers to provide such creative pictures.
What are the most memorable days from your career so far?
There are many but top of the list is probably Denman’s Gold Cup for which I did the on course commentary. The reaction of the crowd to every twist and turn of that race was just incredible and it was a real privilege to be able to describe it. I think he would have beaten just about any horse that day and it will always be one of my favourites.
Pilsudski’s Japan Cup win, when I had been flown out at short notice from Hong Kong where I was working at the time was another memorable experience whilst the Nassau between Alexander Goldrun and Ouija Board was also fantastic as I had called them both so many times during their careers in many different countries.
Are there any other sports that you would like to give a go?
Racing is quite a specialist sport and very few commentators have moved into it from other sports whereas there are a few race callers, notably the superb John Hunt on swimming for 5 Live, who can make a good fist of other sports.
Cricket is the only other mainstream sport that I would be entirely comfortable commentating on but the slower speed of the game compared to a horse race makes it the domain of ex -players. I am hoping during my time with ITV to get the chance to get to meet other commentators and observe the way other sports work especially the Tour De France. Calling a sprint finish up the Champs Elysees makes the Wokingham look a piece of cake!