Colin Cameron meets Oli Bell, the new tyro of racing punditry, who combines racing and betting, with a hint of Graham Norton
A status to which many in horseracing aspire is to be a “face”; someone who moves the bookmakers’ odds with even a modest bet, or who can cause a stir at Tattersalls simply by asking to inspect a yearling due to be sold at auction.
At the relatively tender age of 30, Oli Bell is practically there. He has managed this by taking centre stage in ITV’s new and fresh approach to covering racing on terrestrial television. Added to this, his uncle Michael, is the Epsom Derby-winning trainer whose Newmarket stable boasts the hugely popular Big Orange and his father Rupert, is Talk Sport’s voice of racing, a regular at tracks throughout the season.
Bell also has other features that distinguish him. At cricket he can claim to have hit the England Test match bowler Andy Caddick for four. After the ball was retrieved from the boundary, Caddick helpfully suggested even in what was a lighthearted game, that he fetch his helmet. Former classmates at Oundle cannot see much beyond “Knuckles”, the role which their noted alumnus is remembered for taking in the school production of Bugsy Malone. As for poker, he just about washed his face on the pro circuit for two years, cultivating the nom de plume “Bell Boy” and a deserved reputation for fearless staking. Then there was football in Australia for a team graced by Derby stalwart, Spencer Prior.
So, the racing circuit may recognize Bell instantly, but who exactly is he? As he takes a seat for lunch at Boisdale’s mother ship in Belgravia, he maintains that he is more comfortable in a chair than he has been or would ever be in the saddle. Whatever the name suggests, I am not racing born and bred, he insists. “The last time I was at Uncle Mike’s yard it was to drop off a golf club,” Bell laughs. He shrugs: “I grew up 30 minutes from Wincanton racecourse but we weren’t exactly regulars there.”
His path to ITV racing and our living rooms was prefaced by a bit of broadcast experience facilitated by his father, at the likes of Burghley horse trials and some motor sport days. Even allowing for a degree of ambivalence in his earlier days, racing proved a better fit. The chance to work in the game properly came when he was invited to make the tea at Racing UK (although those there, cannot exactly remember a Bell brew), the sport’s satellite channel. By observing the work of accomplished broadcasters like Nick Luck and Lydia Hislop, Bell ensured that a car crash moment covering three-day eventing was a distant memory.
The ITV gig, as part of the team that took over terrestrial television rights for British racing from Channel 4 at the start of this year, came on the back of the new broadcaster’s wish to freshen up the screen with new blood. “Working in racing was worth coming back from Australia, where I was on a bit of a busman’s walkabout,” Bell insists.
A key roll for Bell is interviewing winning jockeys and trainers. For inspiration, he has looked beyond sport. “As far as broadcasters are concerned I admire the likes of Graham Norton; he makes everything feel comfortable for the viewers and those being screened. Racing on television should be continuously explained without being patronizing. The aim should be for those watching, to experience what you are experiencing there.”
Logic can be the best route to profit, Bell reasons. “If you find enough 16/1 shots that in your opinion should be 4/1 and get that right often enough, you will make money.”
In an ideal world, Bell recommends that all punters have a stake plan. “Decide on your stake unit (this could be 50p, £5, £5,000 or to whatever you can stretch to) and then have multiples of two, three, four and five of this. If you are absolutely sure you have a winner then put on five times your basic stake. If you are less confident, then limit yourself to a single stake, or double that.” It all depends on your strength of feeling, Bell argues.
Be sure to put in the work studying the form, he urges. “In racing there are so many whispers. If you lived in Newmarket, six or seven different people will tell you a whole range of horses will win a race.”
Efforts at unearthing emerging talent in racing are more focused. “Charlie Fellowes is a trainer I think will be the next big thing”, Bell confides. “He has great attention to detail, as does Tom Clover and also Olly Murphy, who was the assistant to Gordon Elliott. They are well on the way to making names for themselves.”
We are at the business end of our time together so I press Bell on up and coming jockeys? “Clifford Lee is one to watch”, Bell suggests “and I think Holly Doyle has improved hugely. Over jumps, James Bowen is heading for the top.”
As we are now in that period in the calendar when jumps racing picks up the pace and flat racing is poised for a new season, Bell has a horse from each code to follow in the months ahead; Thistlecrack, through the winter over the sticks, and Clemmie as one for next year’s flat season.
“Clemmie is a full sister to Churchill, the winner of the 2,000 Guineas who is a real star. She looked very impressive at Newmarket’s July meeting and could be a classic filly in 2018. As for Thistlecrack, I can’t wait to see him back in action. He’s got it all and is one of the most exciting jumpers in training. He has the X factor.”
A brother who is an agent to comedians and a sister, who paints, provides Bell with refuge from all the gossip of training centers. “I talk to them to get away from it all,” he jokes. He is fulsome in celebrating his siblings’ gifts. As for his own sports, he is semi-retired from cricket, bar cameos for trainer Ed Dunlop’s Newmarket all-stars. Like a short ball from Caddick, broadcasting bouncers are now keeping Oli alert.