TO many, Sir Peter O’Sullevan will always be known as the ‘voice of racing’. His were the words that provided the soundtrack to Saturday afternoons when the BBC did consent to broadcast the sport of kings before abdicating its responsibilities as a national broadcaster.
Yet this does not do justice to a commentator who will be forever remembered for calling Red Rum’s unprecedented three Grand National wins at Aintree – or the mighty Dawn Run in “the mare’s beginning to get up” Cheltenham Gold Cup of 1986.
At 96, Sir Peter is racing royalty. The patriarch of his sport, with the best contacts book in the business from the Queen to AP McCoy, he now derives as much satisfaction from his fundraising exploits as those great commentary calls which appear never to have been truly appreciated by his BBC bosses.
After retiring from “both scribbling and spieling” in his 80th year, he set about creating the Sir Peter O’Sullevan Charitable Trust which has now raised more than £4m for six equine and racing charities that remain close to his heart.
It is a phenomenal achievement that prompted Sir Peter to update his autobiography, Calling The Horses, which was first published 25 years ago.
Other than Sir Peter’s still-to-be-disclosed nap for Boxing Day, there is only one other racing certainty this Christmas – and that is this lovingly-produced book and the author’s lifelong attention to detail.
Too modest to glory in his commentaries, Sir Peter has always attributed his choice of words to spontaneity, the narrative is brought alive by the forensic detail of his triumphs over his bookmaking adversaries and the correspondence which he collected, and meticulously recorded, through the decades.
Yet, in many respects, he was an accidental broadcaster. He was already working for the Press Association in 1946 when he assisted Peter Dimmock with the radio commentary of the two-and-a-quarter mile Cesarewitch cavalry charge across two counties at Newmarket.
Out in the country, Dimmock called the names by guess work – he gambled that the lightly-weighted horses would be leading – and his ever-enthusiastic sidekick would pass notes of the updating riding order when the runners came into sight. A series of dramatic changes were then announced to listeners before Raymond Glendenning gave another sharp shuffle of the pack before commentating on the actual finish.
“Raymond could inject more suspense than Hitchcock into the closing stages of a race,” noted the apprentice who concluded, wisely, that “television was the death of histrionics”.
Perseverance did pay off and O’Sullevan was offered a trial race at Cheltenham to commentate (off air), prompting him to recall: “One of the runners was lathered with sweat but he was dry as a bone compared with the commentator. St Vitus himself would have held his raceglasses steadier and I couldn’t, for the life of me, remember the name of the horse lying third; there’s nothing like a microphone to promote instant amnesia.”
Despite this pessimism, the commentary was a winner and the young O’Sullevan was asked to call three television races from Kempton on January 31, 1948, for a fee of 15 guineas. He was off and running even though his workplace was rudimentary.
“Commentary boxes were non-existent; any semblance of shelter was the exception, and equipment malfunction the norm,” he observed.
O’Sullevan enjoyed another break 12 months later – he won the race to join the Daily Express racing team when Cyril Luckman retired after a 50-year stint. It did, initially, appear to be the end of O’Sullevan’s broadcasting – the then editor Arthur Christiansen wrote: “I am not against our specialists doing an occasional broadcast, so long as it is not a regular assignment.”
The new recruit did not waiver – he was going to make this arrangement work to his newspaper’s advantage despite the initial misgivings that were recorded for posterity. O’Sullevan’s profile and discretion led to him being entrusted by the father of a young jockey to chauffeur his son from Lincoln to Aintree with intermittent stops so the reporter could telephone his selections to the office.
He recalls: “My 17-year-old travelling companion would drink a cup of sugarless tea and eat sparingly when we stopped for dinner while bound for Liverpool’s Adelphi.
“It was a trip we undertook for several years...before I put over the next day’s selections ‘the boy’, who never talked a lot, said he’d been told that the one he rode in tomorrow’s seller, Terrorist, would go well. It did, winning by a short head and becoming the 190th winner in the meteoric career of the boy, Lester Piggott.”
This was the start of a lifelong friendship that exists to this day. The bond is such that Piggott spent an afternoon during Royal Ascot with his now widowed and increasingly frail mentor so they could watch the racing together, even though winners were harder to find than a fine lubricating Claret.
It almost meant that O’Sullevan was the beneficiary of, arguably, the racing ‘scoop’ of the 20th century when he took a phone call from Piggott informing him that he was returning to the saddle at the age of 55 in 1990 after a spell in prison for tax evasion.
O’Sullevan noted prison had changed Piggott’s personality – “he was more sensitive to other people’s feelings” – but even he was taken aback by the comeback of all sporting comebacks and the rider’s nerveless Breeders’ Cup win in America 12 days later on Royal Academy.
Piggott, who had ridden at 21lb below his natural body weight since 12, recorded his 4,493rd and final domestic winner at Haydock in October 1994 aboard Jack Berry’s Palacegate Jack. His great friend was among the well-wishers and offered this tribute: “Lester was born with a pedigree that virtually guaranteed exceptional horse-borne equilibrium, which was to form the basis of his remarkable virtuosity.”
They are words that could equally apply to Sir Peter O’Sullevan, still the first and only sports commentator to have been bestowed a knighthood by the Queen. After all, there has never been a finer exponent of calling the horses. And nor will there be.
Calling The Horses (Hodder & Stoughton, £25).