Jim Mcgrath: A Life in Horseracing

Perhaps one of the most easily recognisable faces in racing, Jim McGrath became a staple of Channel 4’s racing team for over 30 years and was well-known for his onscreen banter with racing legend John Francome. Nicknamed the ‘Sage of Halifax’, McGrath worked for Channel 4 from the mid-80s and was renowned for his knowledge and insight into one of the most popular sports in the UK that still gets shown on terrestrial TV.

His later decision not to join the new ITV racing team was rightly seen as a huge loss to many enthusiasts, including his most ardent fans who had become used to he and John Francome discussing the form and chances of various riders and horses.

Early Life

McGrath was born in 1955 in Scotland and his love affair with racing stretches way back to 1963 when he was sat in his grandparent’s house in Edinburgh watching Ayala win the Grand National on an old black and white TV set. He wanted, of course, to be a jockey first and foremost but found out very early on that he was not going to be suitable. He spent the summer at the Whistbury stable of Ben Marshall, having intensive trials before learning he wasn’t going to make the grade.

That didn’t diminish McGrath’s love of the sport, however, and he began working for Timeform in 1974, taking every job conceivable so that he could be close to all things racing. The company was based in Halifax and had been founded in 1948 to provide information on horse performances to those in the industry and people who loved to put on a bet.


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What he realised when he first started with the company was that he actually knew very little about racing. That began to change quickly. McGrath worked with Timeform until his departure in 2009, during that time going from humble tea boy to chairman.

Racing Career

McGrath was a quick learner and soon grabbed the attention of television executives. He was taken on as a commentator in 1980 by ITV who then had the rights to televise racing. When this moved to Channel 4 in 1984, McGrath was a natural choice to include in the new racing line up. That led to a 35 year career commenting on races that only ended when the rights went back to ITV a few years back.

One of the enduring parts of McGrath’s career in television was his relationship with ex-jockey and commentator John Francome, a double act that seemed to tick all the right boxes. McGrath was strong on the rules and form while Francome could bring his own personal experience to the table, something that seemed to be a perfect match. They became a staple practically every weekend and during festivals, one that many racing punters remember to this day.

Jim McGrath - Royal Ascot

As far as McGrath is concerned there were several highlights from his racing commentary career. One of the most difficult was when racing at Cheltenham was abandoned in 2001 due to bad weather and he was summarily dispatched by Channel 4 to cover racing in Doncaster, rushing up the motorway to make it with just five minutes to spare and with hardly any TV equipment to help things run smoothly. McGrath talks about Dubai World Cup in 1996 as one of the highlights of his career where he got to see legendary horse Cigar win.

Calling It a Day

Once the racing moved back to ITV, however, McGrath finally decided to call it a day and has not regretted his decision.

McGrath wasn’t just a pundit to be wheeled out in front of the cameras when there was a race on television. He’s also made a remarkable contribution to the industry over the years. He was, for almost 20 years, a member of organisations such as British Horseracing Board’s Jump Racing Advisory Panel and the Horserace Writers and Photographers’ Association Committee and became a director for the British Horseracing Board in 2005. He is also a trustee of the British Horseracing Standards Education Trust. Not only that, he has been involved over the last 35 years with notable causes such as the MacMillan races at York which has helped raise millions for the charity.

Add to that his continuing career as a horse breeder and owner and there has been plenty to keep McGrath busy after the end of his television career with John Francome. Success with horses such as Toogood to be True and Castles In The Air have fuelled his enthusiasm for the sport and he’s been able to breed some 80 winners over the years for both flats and jumps. He’s still dreaming about owning that top horse though and continues to work with some of the best names and stables in horse racing.


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