It is a testament to the power of sport in Ed Chamberlin’s life that it both consoled and excited him as he laboured under the shadow of death.
The racing presenter’s tale is as dramatic as any race to be called at Cheltenham next week.
His past involves domestic stories of Grandpa Jock and gambling, an unlikely succession to the throne of Richard Keys and Andy Gray and, most darkly, the view of the famous uphill finish when he roared so much in support of his friend AP McCoy in the Champion Hurdle of 2009 that his intravenous tubes were detached and he sat amid the detritus ‘of blood and chemotherapy drugs’.
‘Oh, and AP lost,’ he recalls of Binocular failing to withstand the challenge of Punjabi in the sort of race that makes Cheltenham so addictive that it could be added to the banned substances list.
‘I was in intensive care and televisions are not allowed in there,’ he says of the aftermath of an operation to remove a stomach tumour.
‘But with a bit of persuasion, a bit of bribery, I managed to get one in and was delighted to see AP give one of the greatest rides ever on Wichita Lineman. ‘Binocular came up short but I will always remember that day.’
The experience of cancer has marked his family. ‘I was fully aware of how tough it was on them,’ adds Chamberlin.
‘It still is in a way because it haunts them even now. My wife was pregnant with our second child. I sort of felt in control but people tiptoe around you. I felt sorry for them.’
The 46-year-old has helped reinvigorate racing coverage on ITV after making the move
Eleven years on, aged 46, Chamberlin can not only reflect on his ordeal and what it revealed in him, but concede it played a major part in his jump from the most high-profile role in British live sport to the ailing backwater that was television racing.
He has reinvigorated the sport, leading what is regarded by many as the best team in broadcasting.
‘Every cancer battle is very different,’ he insists. ‘I look back on it and think how lucky I was when I read horror stories of others.
‘I dodged a major bullet. I was so ill before I received treatment that the outlook was bleak when they discovered the tumour, so I was very much of the attitude of just throw everything at me.
‘There are thousands of types of chemotherapy. My one was ferocious. I am very strong mentally and I was right up for the battle.
‘As soon as my markers came down, I knew it hadn’t spread too badly and I was going to survive. That was about six weeks into my chemotherapy and I was a different person, I was on the attack. The tumour was shrinking, the pain was going.’
This resilience was natural, almost instinctive. But cancer played a part when he was offered the chance to lead ITV Racing in 2017. He had been a racing fan since a child. It had led him into the British Horseracing Authority graduate scheme where he was sent on work experience to bookmaker Ladbrokes.
He stayed there for three years before setting up a betting magazine that was devoured by the bursting of the dotcom bubble. He was then recruited to Sky and was suddenly thrust into the front line when Keys and Gray left the station in the wake of a scandal over comments in 2011.
‘I was thrown into it,’ admits Chamberlin. ‘I had never done a live football match before I presented Fulham v Newcastle at Craven Cottage on a Tuesday night. If I am honest, I was useless to start with. But in my third game – the Manchester derby – with that overhead kick by Wayne Rooney – I had a row with (former Manchester City winger) Mike Summerbee in the studio and that put me on the map.’
Chamberlin earned widespread recognition for his role as host on Monday Night Football
Chamberlin chuckles at this tale but he was a serious player in moving on from the highly successful Keys-Gray model to a Super Sunday and Monday Night Football double bill that launched the careers of Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher as analysts.
He had helped take an already iconic brand to new heights. Sunday afternoons and Monday nights became compulsive viewing for the arguments and insight. Chamberlin was the king of an indomitable castle, looking down on all rivals. So he left.
IT was the sort of father-and- son heart to heart that is normally the preserve of references to birds and bees. This one ended in tears.
‘I told him I was leaving Sky. He started to cry. He said: “Dad, what have you done?”
Sam Chamberlin, then aged seven, was reacting to the news of his father leaving the kingdom in the Sky for the earthly delights of horse racing. A call to his mate did not offer Chamberlin senior any respite.
‘AP told me I was daft,’ he laughs. ‘He told me not to take the job and keep doing the football. Obviously, I ignored him.
‘The first day we worked together on the racing in January 2017 it was a monsoon.’
Chamberlin cheered on McCoy in the 2009 Champion Hurdle while being trreated for cancer
So why did Chamberlin make such a leap? Does it go back to the survival from cancer and the desire to make the most of life, to gamble all when one has stepped away from the brink?
‘Yeah, it changed me greatly as a person,’ he says. ‘I was much more willing to take a risk. I always dreamed of having that job, though I never thought it would happen.
‘As soon I was offered it, I wanted it. Pre-illness, I would have been more cautious. I had a different attitude post-cancer. I felt: “You only live once, let’s have a crack at it”. I wasn’t like that before.’ His immersion in racing came early in the West Country of his boyhood. ‘It was through a Scottish grandfather, Jock Burns,’ he reflects.
‘My earliest memories are of him sitting in his armchair, a pint of cider on a small table and the phone by his side to contact his credit account.’
The attraction was immediate.
‘It was the betting side of, it,’ continues Chamberlin. ‘It was the Grand National that got me hooked. I was in charge of the household sweepstakes when I was a boy and had my first bet at the age of eight or nine.
‘I backed Spartan Missile and I was cursing Bob Champion when he won on Aldaniti. I had no idea of the story unfolding in front of my eyes,’
Chamberlin remembers watching Bob Champion win the 1981 Grand National on Aldaniti
Champion, of course, was winning the 1981 National after recovering from testicular cancer.
‘It spiralled from there,’ says Chamberlin.
‘Once racing gets you, it grabs you.’ A Southampton fan, his detour into football was educational and satisfying. He passed the dramatic on-air audition precipitated by the departures of Keys and Gray.
‘It was almost like good news, bad news,’ he says. ‘First they said I had the Super Sunday and Monday Night Football job. Then they said we are pairing you with a guy called Gary Neville.
‘I thought: “Oh, no. I’m essentially starting off my presenting career with the most unpopular football player in the country”. I was very nervous about it.
‘But I only had to meet Gary once to realise what a great guy he was and, secondly, what a big influence he would have on me with his work ethic and determination.
‘Thirdly, I realised I was going to have a lot of fun showing people at home that he is a funny guy, a family guy and a great guy.’
The show broke new ground. Neville, with a touchscreen installed in his home, became an expert at the technicalities of presenting while always retaining his passion.
Chamberlin admitted he learned from working with Jamie Carragher (L) and Gary Neville (R)
Carragher joined to bring another distinctive voice but one that chimed with his former England team-mate.
‘Neville and Carragher dragged every last drop out of their careers,’ says Chamberlin.
‘They brought that same attitude to Sky. I learned from that. It was all about that Alex Ferguson school of never standing still. When you have succeeded, go again.’
This brought awards, friendship and personal satisfaction.
Chamberlin has taken the same mindset to ITV. He has a similarly-relaxed demeanour to that of his hero Desmond Lynam, the great BBC anchor man, in seeming to present amid the mayhem of roaring punters, whinnying horses and celebrating owners while ruminating gently on the vagaries of life.
His internal mantra is to say as little as possible. ‘Any presenter who feels the need to educate the viewer…well, then it is time to turn out the lights,’ he says.
Zara Tindall shares a joke with Chamberlin in the middle of ITV’s Cheltenham Festival coverage
He acts as a conductor for the most gifted of soloists: Francesca Cumani, Mick Fitzgerald and the two greatest National Hunt jockeys, McCoy and Ruby Walsh.
The team eat together every night before a broadcast. Chamberlin picks up concerns, encourages anecdotes, prompts arguments and enhances a camaraderie that can be felt on camera. But some lessons have a longer history.
‘AP has mellowed,’ he says of McCoy, who was the most obdurate winner in a sport that demands blood and breaks in return for the fleeting sensation of victory.
‘I remember him sitting in the jockeys’ room after his ride, Clan Royal, was carried out by a loose horse after going clear in the 2005 National,’ says Chamberlin.
‘AP had his head in his hands when Jonjo (O’Neill, Clan Royal’s trainer) came in. AP was muttering: “What a disaster”. But Jonjo, who had recovered from cancer, said: “No, it’s not. Sitting in a room waiting for your cancer treatment, that’s a disaster”. It changed AP.’
The Cheltenham coverage will be inhabited by characters who will insist on professionalism and demand dedication. But it will, fittingly, have a lightness of soul.
It will be led, after all, by a man who thought the finishing line was close but, blessedly, has found that his race is far from run.
Ed Chamberlin will be joined by Francesca Cumani, AP McCoy, Ruby Walsh, Mick Fitzgerald, Sally Anne Grassick, Brough Scott and others for ITV and ITV4’s coverage of the Cheltenham Festival, which begins on Tuesday.