New face of a brave new broadcast world
The figurehead of ITV Racing shares his plans for the future with a nod to his past
Give me a child until the age of seven, wrote Aristotle, and I will show you the man. The man shifts in his chair, dams for a moment the torrent of words that characterise him, stares thoughtfully out of the window as a stray, winter-thin sunbeam plays over him, and lets the years fall away.
We are who we were; Ed Chamberlin is about to embark on a career as the main presenter of ITV's racing coverage, is about to possess one of the most familiar faces in the sport. He is new to this, but not new to racing, and not new to ITV racing either. If Chamberlin feels as though he's coming home, it's easily understood.
"I feel like it's gone full circle," he says. "I first got into racing as a kid in the west country - my grandfather on my mother's side was racing mad and his Saturday afternoons would revolve around cider, a big armchair and World of Sport on ITV.
"I remember being about seven and sitting with him, we watched the wrestling, Giant Haystacks and Big Daddy, and then the racing would come on. That morning we'd have done the ITV7 together - I was in charge of flicking through the cards in the Daily Express to find something with a Scottish name, or a grey. Those were the big criteria.
"Of course you don't know it's happening at the time, but that's what racing can do to you . . . you gently get hooked. Now I want to do that with ITV. The most satisfactory thing anyone will say to me is 'I gave racing a go and I liked it'."
Chamberlin the fisher of men and women, an evangelist for his sport, looking forward to reeling in the unconverted and showing them the glory of a horse and all that goes with it. The subject of racing on terrestrial television has its thorns, has its pitfalls, is a topic that leaves few unmoved, but the return of ITV coverage after more than 30 years is a fresh start for both racing and the seasoned broadcaster who will become its figurehead. The tall, boyish Chamberlin, 42, the former anchorman of Sky's live football coverage, is one of life's talkers, could talk for Britain as well as to Britain, but loses his professional detachment when discussing the task awaiting him and gabbles winningly away like a child discussing his Christmas list.
"I think Channel 4 was excellent. Clare Balding is a hero of mine and couldn't have been more helpful, and Nick Luck is ridiculously good at what he does. But ITV has to be fresh and different.
"I know we aren't going to please everybody, but I love the team we've assembled and we're going to give it a right good go. It's a challenge, and I can't wait.
"People might say 'why have you left the great god football for a minority sport like racing?'. My son Sam asked me that, said 'what have you done, Dad?' But I genuinely didn't see it like that. I was ready for another challenge. I loved my job, but when [ITV director of sport] Niall Sloane came to me in January it took about 30 seconds to make up my mind.
"It's my dream job, and when Niall laid out ITV's vision and its aims, I loved them. All the promises they've made me have been followed through. I had one of the best jobs in football, had one of the best jobs in televised sport, but I now have the best job I could ever dream of. It's what I've wanted to do since I was seven - that's when it kicked in that I love this sport."
The man is a fan, has been ever since the cheers died in his throat as Spartan Missile failed to catch Aldaniti, his passion nourished by the likes of Dublin Flyer - "I could watch his Mackeson over and over again" - and Martha's Son. If racing insiders were concerned about Chamberlin's credentials, their doubts ought to be assuaged by the wistfulness with which he recalls owner John Sumner's old roll-neck racing colours, like a poet searching for the right phrase and finding it with a sigh. He's one of us, all right. And, like every good evangelist, he wants 'them' to be 'us' too.
"This summer there's no World Cup, no Euros, no Olympics, no rugby World Cup, no competition. What an opportunity that is for racing - the Derby meeting, Royal Ascot, uninterrupted coverage. And it's a huge thing to get racing on to other shows, which is what ITV can do. Yes, we can get [hosts of This Morning] Holly Willoughby and Phillip Schofield on our show, but it's more important to get racing on their show and sell it like that.
"On a Saturday afternoon people will stumble across ITV, and what we have to do is keep them. And if they've already seen some cross-promotion during X Factor, or Loose Women, or This Morning, it might just be the trigger for them to give it a go. Then how do you keep the aficionados, the purists happy while opening it up and keeping the other sort of people too? It's a difficult balance.
"We'll try to explain, to bring people in, involve them like I got involved when I was seven years old, I got that hook and it kept me. It's going to be very much about the horses and the people who go with them, and nostalgia will be a big part of what we do, giving historical perspective - and I'd love to bring back the ITV7.
"Racing needs this to work, it's in everyone's interest for ITV to be successful, and everyone within the sport has been so helpful as I've tried to immerse myself in the racing world."
He happily rattles off a list of places he's been, people who've helped him, no stone left unturned since he signed off from Sky in May. He has neither underestimated the size of the task ahead of him nor its heavyweight nature, and has thrown himself wholeheartedly into the process. This is, after all, a little different from his first job in racing.
"When I was 15, 16, I had a holiday job at Newbury racecourse, I was part of the groundstaff, did quite a bit of putting up guttering, as I recall. On racedays my job was looking after the fire alarm. It used to go off on its own - I never saw a race, instead I was sitting on a chair in the Berkshire stand by the fire alarm hoping it wouldn't go off, ready to leap into action and calm everything down if it did."
Chamberlin wanted to get into racecourse management, applied to the BHB graduate scheme hoping for a two-week placement at Ascot, Sandown, Goodwood. They sent him to Ladbrokes instead, something he describes with a grin as 'a big blow'. The blow didn't sting for long; after his two weeks he was invited to join the odds-compiling department on a permanent basis, accepted, and loved it.
"I had to learn quickly, there was a lot of pressure, I used to get terribly nervous, I wasn't brilliant but I was okay. They were the pre-internet days of the mid-1990s, and if the Superform pages were delayed in the post I was stuffed."
Three and a half years at the bookmaker’s Rayners Lane HQ gave Chamberlin a good grounding before he moved into journalism, editing the magazine Sports Advisor and cutting his broadcasting baby teeth with a weekly slot on Bloomberg TV. He was never sure who was actually watching, but it turned out that Sky were, and liked what they saw.
"They put me on a programme called 90 Minutes, where I supplied Opta stats and odds for the weekend football. They dressed me up in proper wide-boy style, pink braces, chinos, a tie knotted halfway down my chest. I'm glad Twitter hadn't been invented.
"After that I did The Full SP with Jeff Stelling - that lasted one season and I was in a bit of a hole again. Then Andy Cairns [executive producer of Sky Sports News] put me in for a screen test. This was it, the big chance.
"Afterwards, he said 'I can't believe how bad you were'. I'd never used autocue. But they invested in me and I worked hard, threw everything at it."
Chamberlin got his big chance on a graveyard shift, Sunday night, quaking in the spotlight, rabbit in the headlights, but he was away. He was promoted to a midweek version of Jeff Stelling's Soccer Saturday, eventually took over the top job - presenting the Sunday and Monday matches. For his first game he co-presented with ex-Manchester United star Gary Neville, and they were both so nervous they'd said everything they had to say with a long, long seven minutes still to kick-off. "It got better from there. I'm such a lucky so-and-so."
Some of the luck has been bad, naturally. In 2009 he was diagnosed with stomach cancer, had it confirmed by a tearful nurse. "This isn't good, I thought. I've got a two-year-old daughter and a son on the way. How long have I got?" But he's still here to talk wryly about it, whistling away the dark.
"My daily goal, after 11 hours on the chemo drip, was to take my sickness tablets quick enough to be able to go downstairs and buy the Racing Post. I had nine weeks of chemo and after three weeks the markers dropped, the great moment, I knew it hadn't spread and I was pretty much going to be okay.
"My proudest moment was getting a television in the ward so I could watch Cheltenham. When Wichita Lineman won I committed the cardinal sin of becoming so excited that my drip came out of my arm. The nurses were very unimpressed but I didn't care, it was the greatest ride I'd ever seen."
Horseracing as healing process. Chamberlin came out the other side after nine months and an infection that nearly finished what the cancer started. His hair grew back, he got his TV show back, but his time in Southampton hospital left a mark that hasn't healed over, that changed him, that proved the catalyst for a change of career.
"I feel incredibly lucky every day. All the time I was in hospital there were always people there worse off than me - God, I can remember those wards now.
"My illness changed my mentality - I'm far more willing to take a risk now. I used to be quite cautious, conservative in my attitude to life, but now I'm more open to taking a chance, which is probably what I've done with the ITV job. I've been given another chance at life, so I'm going for it."
He makes the thoroughly unnecessary admission that he's excited about his new role - the heart on his sleeve is almost visibly beating treble time - and says that the prospect feels surreal. At least he knows what to expect, but what can the viewer expect?
"Des Lynam is my ultimate hero as a presenter. Look, I'm not fit to lace his boots, but his style and philosophy lives in me in the sense that I'm there to get the best out of other people, to tell the story as best I can, to remember that it's all about the sport, the racing.
"I'll be very happy if no-one's talking about me. I'm more of a conductor or a referee, if you don't notice them it means they're doing it right, that was always my philosophy on Monday Night Football. I'm not there to pretend that I'm some sort of racing aficionado, I couldn't do it. Whether it comes out right, we'll have to wait and see, but Cheltenham is the perfect place to start.
"I'll be doing my lines the night before, pacing up and down. Once I get the first two links behind me, I'll feel a lot better. I'll be up early with butterflies, will walk the track with Richard Hoiles to calm myself down. Even though I've done television for a long time, I'll be very, very nervous. So will my mother."
And he laughs. But as the minutes tick away towards 1pm today, Chamberlin would be forgiven if his concentration wanders, if he finds himself thinking back to the pink braces, the guttering at Newbury, the smell of Grandad's cider on a Saturday and the first two legs up in the ITV7.
"I planned what I wanted to say at the beginning of the programme weeks and weeks ago," he says. Years and years ago, really; back when he was a seven-year-old sitting in front of the television, wondering what it would be like to be the man in front of the cameras.
Away from the day job
Racing used to be my escape from football, now football will be my escape from racing. Racing was always my passion but of course football was too. I loved working in football.
I'm a big Southampton fan and go with my son Sam when I can, although obviously I'll go less now as I'll have something else to do at 3pm on a Saturday. It was never any fun presenting a Southampton game on Sky, though, it was horrible. They never seemed to win. Club captain Jose Fonte asked me to stop presenting their games, told me I was known as The Curse.
Golf is a big thing too, I play off 12 and stage a golf day each year at Woburn for the WellChild charity, for which I'm an ambassador. WellChild is a wonderful organisation, it gets children out of hospital and allows them to be treated at home. When I was in Southampton hospital the children's cancer ward was next door, and the memory of it haunts me now.
Last year the golf day raised enough money to finance a WellChild nurse for the entire year. Hopefully we'll build on that this year, two nurses, three nurses. It makes such a difference.