I will never forget the phone call. It was the morning after Ladies’ Day at Royal Ascot in the Diamond Jubilee summer of 2012 when Sir Peter O’Sullevan had sat opposite the Queen in the regal pre-race procession.
After congratulating the “old rogue” on “securing the best seat in the house”, I gently suggested that they must have enjoyed a lubricating stiffener over lunch at Windsor Castle because the conversation had been flowing.
“My dear Tom... how judicious of you,” replied Sir Peter. “We were actually discussing the form for the 5pm today and whether Her Majesty’s Estimate can win the Queen’s Vase. We came to the conclusion that the filly is a good thing.”
They were right. Estimate, trained by Sir Michael Stoute and ridden by Ryan Moore, did win by five lengths and would enjoy an even greater success 12 months later when landing the blue riband Ascot Gold Cup.
Yet the 5-1 odds quoted in the morning paper were proving elusive – Estimate was 3-1 by the time I realised the significance of this once-in-a-lifetime tip after Sir Peter had availed himself of a generous early price. The six words that always struck fear into his bookmaking adversaries were: “I think we can do business...”
Why does this matter? It is a measure of the esteem in which the Queen held Sir Peter O’Sullevan, who died peacefully last Wednesday at the age of 97, that she wanted the “voice of racing” to be her special guest on this landmark occasion in her reign.
Even Her Majesty recognised that Sir Peter was racing royalty not only because of his incomparable voice that was his sport’s soundtrack for 50 years before he hung up the microphone in 1997, but because of his infectious affinity with all those involved in the sport from the humble stable lad to the wealthiest owners in the world.
They say you should never meet your heroes – his spine-tingling accompaniment to Red Rum’s third Grand National, cancer-stricken Bob Champion’s fairytale Aintree win on Aldaniti and Dawn Run’s Cheltenham Gold Cup left indelible impressions on my childhood – but Sir Peter O’Sullevan was the exception to this rule.
Ten years after his final National commentary, I had the privilege of meeting Sir Peter, and his beloved wife Pat, at their Chelsea flat – the beginning of a friendship that lasted until his passing and the sad realisation there will never be another phone call, or card, beginning “My dear Tom”.
I wanted to know what made a good commentary – and he spoke, candidly, about his relief if a race passed without a faux pas on his part. Always nervous before a big race, he showed me one of his famous colour-coded cards that he painstakingly put together before each of the 14,000 races that he called for an often ungrateful BBC.
These were works of art depicting a kaleidoscope of colours and every imaginable detail about each of the runners. They took hours to compile – much of Sir Peter’s career was in the era of black and white television and newsprint – but what surprised me was his admission that he very rarely referred to them in his commentary. They were just a reassurance; his memory, eye for detail and instinct were what really mattered.
Yet, when I asked whether he was happy with his Red Rum commentary – “it’s hats off and a tremendous reception”– after Ginger McCain’s legendary horse won his third National, Sir Peter revealed that he “was never self-satisifed enough” to be proud of any commentary call. “I was thankful because there were a lot of loose horses and it was always important to sustain the rhythm of the race. With many, I felt I could have done this or that better, but I could live with that one,” he said.
However, such modesty does insufficient justice to Sir Peter’s ability to keep up with the action through his trusted binoculars – acquired from a German U-boat. That set him apart from his peers. His abiding memory, he admitted, was the sportsmanship shown by 54-year-old amateur rider John Thorne after Spartan Missile’s narrow defeat to the Champion-inspired Aldaniti in 1981 when the two heroic riders embraced as they pulled up.
He was a humanitarian at heart. Born in Ireland, and brought up in Surrey by his grandparents, he was a sickly child whose love of the thoroughbred, and desire to be a commentator, was inspired by Tipperary Tim’s 100-1 win in the 1928 National.
Despite being 10 years of age, he did admit to a pecuniary interest after delivering an envelope to the local butchers for collection by the bookies’ runner.
However, on being excused war service because of asthma and other afflictions, he was seconded to Chelsea Civil Defence and tasked with pulling the dead and injured from buildings bombed by the Germans in the Blitz.
He remained haunted by the pitiful young girl he carried from an air-raid shelter “whose right hand showed she had one finger left to varnish when the bomb struck” which he described as a symbol of the obscenity of the war .
It explains why he was so determined to make the most of his good fortune – he never once needed an overdraft – and become the confidante of Lester Piggott as well as helping incomparable trainer Vincent O’Brien place many lucrative bets, most notably Ballymoss in the 1957 St Leger. Fastidious to the end, he retained the ledger that chronicled the transactions and his report in the Express the following day under the headline ‘Just a canter, says rider’.
The first sports commentator ever to be knighted, it was Sir Peter’s empathy for horse’s racing’s combatants – equine and human – that stood him apart from his contemporaries and inspired his charitable trust which has raised £4m-plus for animal welfare and racing charities.
Yet he was such a man of words that pictures were invariably pointless, such as the great Sea Pigeon, trained at Great Habton in Ryedale by Peter Easterby, finally beating his tenacious nemesis Monksfield at the end of the 1980 Champion Hurdle.
You can picture the scene as Sir Peter’s commentary reaches a crescendo in his unmistakable velvet voice: “Monksfield and Sea Pigeon, it’s a repeat of last year. The same two fighting it out. Sea Pigeon is coming through on the near side and is going to avenge that defeat of last year. He’s striding up to the line, the veteran 10-year-old, he’s won it at last.”
Pure poetry, they were spoken by a broadcasting colossus whose like will never be seen or heard again – Sir Peter O’Sullevan was a national treasure who enriched the lives of all those passionate about the sport of kings from royalty to mere mortals like myself. He was not just the ‘voice of racing’, he was racing.