Modern world has hit the Grand National but bypassed the Masters

ITV racing crew
ITV can't help but promote the Grand National, which is easier when no horses die - Shutterstock

Two heritage sporting events this weekend, with the Augusta Masters and the Grand National expansively covered by Sky Sports and ITV respectively. Both have their place in sporting folklore but the events, and the broadcasts, are taking different approaches to the challenges of modernity.

Racing for a lot of people means the Grand National and nothing else, so the sport has had a hell of a problem to solve in that its most visible event has also been its most gruesome. ITV on Saturday certainly did everything it could to give the sport’s administrators generous and uncritical airtime to explain what changes have been made to the fences, the field and why.

ITV is in a peculiar position in that it is both broadcaster and also a self-described shop window for racing, a partner of sorts, and is as keen as anyone not to be associated with any welfare horrors. From the outside looking in, it is hard not to form the impression that broadcaster, participants and governance are all singing from the same hymn sheet, gamely trying to convince their natural enemies that there’s nothing to worry about. For the anti-betting zealots or the animal rights hardliners, I am not sure there is anything racing could do, or Ed Chamberlin and company could say, other than just banning everything altogether. But God loves a trier and ITV/racing gave it everything.

It is certainly a marked change from recent Nationals when the telly featured a parade of horsey types saying variations of “shut up you townies, we know best and the horses love it.” The big-name ITV pundits such as Sir Antony McCoy were on message this year about what an excellent renewal it had been; those not personally invested might wonder if the event will become denuded, too watered down, lose its singular terrible thrill. Although clearly no TV programme could argue against safety. A puzzle.

But where the Grand National bends over backwards to compromise, to inform, to update, The Masters could not care less about the march of progress. It persists with the blackout of live coverage until 2pm local time (7pm here), which has gone beyond bloody-minded and annoying to be actually admirable. The magnificent bar stewards of the Augusta National know that we would like to watch their golf tournament but they do not care about that.

There is certainly no attempt to move with the times. The Masters valourises, even fetishises its history: Nicklaus, Woods, azaleas, not letting a black guy play in the tournament until 1975. A hotdog still costs a nickel, you know. At Augusta, they will not let you bring in so much as a mobile phone; at Aintree, you might want one to call your drug dealer with. But at least the fighting young men of Liverpool were wearing socks this year. The barbarians are at the gate and their trousers are too tight.

The supreme self confidence of Augusta suggests it will remain as it is for as long as it possibly can, but the TV coverage here is making strides. This is the first year that the BBC has not even had so much as highlights and while that is disappointing for some fans, golf lovers are well served by Sky. The afternoon purdah leaves the UK broadcaster with little to do but port in the coverage from CBS and the Golf Channel, which have a veritable battery of those uniquely American golf TV men in their polyester double-breasted blazers and their names like Chad Hooter and Mike Bison The Third Junior, all looking jolly pleased with themselves next to giant plant pots.

Sky does a good job of blending the old, by which I mean Sir Nick Faldo and Butch Harmon musing away in the time-honoured fashion, and the new, with some excellent analysis stuff from Henni Koyack and a variety of holograms about the competitors’ various swings and approaches. I feel they are getting the balance right between the well-worn, if lovely, sweeping shots of the course with the gentle purring commentary, and something a bit more technocratic. Updating a classic. But, as the racing coverage shows, that is a devilish difficult blend to get right.

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