Bell helps ITV to ring the racing changes
British Champions Day at Ascot provided a suitably enthralling climax to the 2017 flat campaign.
It also marked the climax of ITV’s first full season of a four-year £40m deal to cover horse racing in the UK, having taken over from predecessor Channel 4.
Almost a year since his move from Racing UK, I caught up with Oli Bell, who hosts racing’s iconic weekly programme The Opening Show for ITV.
He fondly recalled receiving confirmation he had got the job whilst en-route to the United States to cover the Breeders’ Cup meeting.
“I was over the moon, it was a relief to get the call. For them to take a punt on someone from a non-terrestrial TV background to front their new morning show was incredibly flattering. It meant that flight to America involved a fair bit of drinking!”
It’s fair to say his appointment as The Opening Show’s presenter initially raised a few eyebrows.
However, the Bell family is well known among racing aficionados thanks to Oli’s uncle Michael, a successful Newmarket-based trainer, and father Rupert, a sports broadcaster.
The more I spoke to Oli, the more evident it became that family has played a pivotal role in his life.
He openly spoke about the separation of his parents, and how that had an impact on his racing interests.
“My parents split up when I was of a young age, and my mother’s side of the family who I stayed with didn’t have much of an interest.
“But I felt a connection with the sport and often when we visited my grandparents or uncle who had a real interest in it. I made sure that I kept in touch and followed the racing closely.
“That passion grew as I got to understand it more, so I guess it feels as though it’s something which has always been in my blood.”
The nature of the tightly-knit Bell family became apparent when I made my first call to Oli, who picked up the phone and answered: “Hi Ben, can I call you back in 10 minutes? My dad is on the other line.”
‘Horseracing is a sport, in my opinion and my experience, which is very welcoming. As long as you are passionate, knowledgeable and willing to work hard you can often find an entry point into the industry’
It was fitting really, as Rupert helped him greatly throughout the early stages of his career, whilst Michael has trained over 1,400 winners, including stable star Big Orange, who claimed this year’s Ascot Gold Cup.
“It was a question of how I would get a job into the industry, and with that I was lucky as my dad was working as a reporter in radio.
“When I was looking for work experience at the age of about 15 or 16, I was fortunate enough to work at some sporting and racing events with him, so I built up a few contacts and from there I left school and got a job making tea at Racing UK.
“I didn’t go to university, I just wanted to crack straight on. I’ve been very fortunate to have had an entry into racing.
“Horseracing is a sport, in my opinion and in my experience, which is very welcoming. As long as you are passionate, knowledgeable and willing to work hard you can often find an entry point into the industry.
Oli’s first full season of working on ITV’s flat racing output has been largely successful. The overall coverage has received widespread praise from fans and journalists alike, whilst Oli has looked at home in his new role.
‘If someone asked me if I wanted to present something else, then I would – I would want to challenge myself to see if I could present something outside of racing’
However, it’s been his handling of post-race interviews which has seen him thrive, allowing himself the freedom to fully display his ability to think on his feet as a presenter.
Speaking of his future, and what his dream role would be, he said: “I genuinely have my dream job at the moment.
“I get to go to racing every week, I get to do the podcast, so for me growing up, if someone said that I would be doing it for a living I would have absolutely bitten their hand off.
“I’m not one that goes that’s my aim that’s my goal, that’s what I want to present and I won’t be happy until I get there.
“I’m so happy and content with my lot that I don’t really have dreams like that anymore.
“But if someone asked me if I wanted to present something else then I would – I would want to challenge myself to see if I could present something outside of racing.”
He also fancies one day being a contender on Strictly Come Dancing.
“That would be the dream!” he enthuses. “I’ve actually told quite a lot of people recently, so put that in and let’s start the campaign!”