Brave new world
Once the first woman to present Channel 4’s horse racing coverage, Lesley Graham is living in Norfolk and looking forward to a new challenge. She spoke to Terry Redhead.
The five dogs looked longingly at the tasty chocolate biscuits Lesley Graham had put out for us to enjoy with a cup of coffee in her expansive Norfolk farmhouse kitchen.
As one of the faces of Channel 4’s horse racing coverage for the past 19 years, Lesley was looking forward to a brave new challenge rather than to what had gone on before. In the New Year she begins life as chief executive of Racing Welfare.
“It was meant to be, I am so pleased to have a new challenge after some difficult years. I hope I can make a difference. The outgoing chief executive, the chairman and the board of trustees have all been so positive which is really pleasing,” said Lesley. “It is a whole new start for me and the beginning of the next step of my life and career.”
Racing Welfare helps anyone working, or who has worked, in the thoroughbred horse racing and breeding industry and their dependents. Those who approach Racing Welfare, which has its headquarters in Newmarket, meet a welfare officer who assesses the individual’s situation and develops a plan that empowers that person to address the situation and supports them as needed.
Racing Welfare employs its own dedicated addiction support worker and guidance can be given in many areas of addiction such as drugs, alcohol, gambling and eating disorders.
“I’m really excited to be returning to the charitable sector. I worked for many years with the Animal Health Trust and the Princess Royal Trust for Carers.
“Racing Welfare provides an absolutely vital source of support to all those upon whom our sport depends. They are the backbone of the sport and I have no doubt that racing will ensure that the charity continues to meet its aims and expand its activities,” added Lesley.
Lesley had just finished feeding the donkeys on the farm at Weston Longville, near Norwich, to where she moved in July, 2011. Her two children are at university and the home is full of dogs and cats.
Already Lesley adores Norfolk. “The roads are a nuisance. The sooner all the work on the A11 at Elveden is complete the better! But people have been so kind and friendly,” she said.
Indeed she has settled in so well that she is now a member of the Weston Longville Parish Council. Back in 2009 her divorce from trainer Neil Graham had attracted some unpleasant headlines and the whole time proved difficult for her.
“Divorce totally destroys your trust in everyone and everything. Fortunately I have some very good friends. I’ve never been totally dependent on anyone and I can be very determined. I always cope. I always have in the past and I always will,” said Lesley, who was a corporate solicitor in London before horse racing, about which she had always been passionate, drew her into a new career in 1993.
In that year she was invited to appear on the Morning Line, Channel 4’s Saturday morning racing preview show. She made her debut at Uttoxeter on February 1, 1993, the programme having started four years earlier.
“I was proud to be the first woman presenter. I had to take a lot of flak. But it was a great team, all good friends and we had a lot of fun. Team meetings were usually hilarious,” said Lesley. Channel 4 has taken over all terrestrial racing coverage from 2013, and as a result the team has been totally changed although Lesley had already opted not to be a part of it.
One legacy of Lesley’s career at Channel 4 is the mounted interview. She was the first to conduct a mounted interview which involved her riding a hack, approaching the winning at the end of a race and grabbing those first thoughts on the race and the victory.
“It wasn’t easy; you had to handle the hack which wasn’t always used to the noise of cheering crowds.” Now the interview is done on foot with an extendable microphone. She worked expertly with former national hunt champion jockey John Francome as well as larger-than-life characters like John McCririck.
“Francome was always a bit of a joker. I remember when we were covering a meeting a York. John was commentating and a streaker appeared on the track. John quickly, on air on live television, said ‘here you go Lesley, come and have a look at this!’”
Lesley, a former county hockey player who set up the Solicitors Hockey League while in London, also co-hosted the Dubai World Cup and remembers with pride Channel 4 Racing winning a BAFTA award for outside broadcasting. The clip shown at the awards was one of her conducting a mounted interview.
“But that is now all in the past and you have to look to the future. I have a great new challenge and I am determined to make a success of my new role,” she added, topping up the coffee cups.
After almost 20 years working for Channel 4 racing, Lesley Graham has her favourites from the sport.
Favourite jockey: Lester Piggott.
Favourite trainers: Vincent O’Brien, Aidan O’Brien, Michael Jarvis and John Gosden.
Favourite horses: Desert Orchid and One Man (national hunt) and Dancing Brave and Frankel (flat).
“I don’t suppose I will ever see a horse better than Frankel. Much of that is down to Sir Henry Cecil (Frankel’s trainer). He is such a good horseman and a great and perceptive judge of a horse’s personality which is so important,” she said. “The same is true with Henrietta Knight and Best Mate and Paul Nicholls and Kauto Star.”