SIR Peter O’Sullevan’s voice is still as evocative and distinctive as it was in 1977 when he called home the greatest winner in the 167-year history of the Grand National.
His spine-tingling words matched the occasion as Ginger McCain’s Red Rum pulled remorselessly clear of the tiring Churchtown Boy to win the world’s greatest steeplechase for a record third time.
“The crowd are willing him home now. The 12-year-old Red Rum, being preceded only by loose horses, being chased by Churchtown Boy... They’re coming to the elbow, just a furlong now between Red Rum and his third Grand National triumph. He gets a tremendous reception, you’ve never heard the like of it at Liverpool... and Red Rum wins the National,” said the ‘Voice of Racing’ so memorably.
Now 96, Sir Peter will be a reluctant non-runner at Aintree today only because of the fragility of his legs – one concession that this national treasure has had to make to his advancing years.
But it is an odds-on certainty, ahead of the most unpredictable race in the calendar, that the Red Rum commentary will be replayed – both at Aintree and on Channel Four Racing.
The reason? As well as characterising the bravery and courage that today’s combatants – equine and human – will have to demonstrate, this is still the people’s race when an unheralded horse like Red Rum, trained by a taxi driver on the beach at Southport, can defy the odds.
And O’Sullevan will raise a small glass (or two) of a carefully chosen Claret because this one commentary gave him more pleasure than any other in a legendary 50-year career that ended in November 1997 when he called his last race for the BBC.
“The words were not planned,” he told The Yorkshire Post in an exclusive interview as he spoke about the art of commentary – and what the race still means to him.
“The words have to come to you. I can hear some commentators using phrases they have thought up in advance, and which they are determined to use in their ‘call’.
“It doesn’t work. It has got to be spontaneous because your job is to interpret the pictures for the television viewer.
“I wouldn’t say I was proud of the Red Rum commentary. I was never self-satisfied enough to be proud of any commentary, but I was thankful because there were a lot of loose horses and it is always important to sustain the rhythm of the race.
“With many commentaries, I felt I could have done this or that better, but I could live with that one. I don’t mind hearing it replayed. It was a very exciting event because Red Rum was such an exceptional horse.
“He had not been bred to be a National Hunt horse – my great friend Lester Piggott won a race on him at Aintree on the Flat.
“Because he had such shocking feet, he would never have been heard of if he had not been sent to Ginger McCain’s to be trained on the sand and in the salt water off Southport. The sand was like a trampoline to lift his spirits.”
O’Sullevan still describes Red Rum’s first win in 1973 as the “most harrowing” of his career.
“When he beat Crisp, Red Rum had 10st 5lb to carry when, in fact, he was a 12st horse around Aintree because of his fondness for the track and fences,” he recalled, every syllable etched with emotion that is still raw to this day.
“Poor Crisp, the long-time leader, had 12st to shoulder and you could see his legs turning to jelly. He was wobbling, poor lad, yet he had just staged one of the most remarkable jumping performances ever. He was out on his feet.
“Even though Red Rum only won by three parts of a length, I still called him the winner a good way before the line.
“The most emotional was 1981. Not just because Bob Champion had beaten cancer, and Aldaniti had been nursed back to health by Josh Gifford, but the sportsmanship shown by 54-year-old John Thorne on the runner-up, Spartan Missile.
“John Thorne put his arm around Bob and was as thrilled as he would have been if he had won himself. It reflected the Corinthian spirit of the National. Sadly, in a point-to-point race, John lost his life shortly afterwards.”
O’Sullevan, whose famous binoculars were obtained from a German submarine, landed his first “touch” in 1928 when the 100-1 outsider Tipperary Tim prevailed after just two of the 42 runners prevailed.
Just 10 at the time, O’Sullevan picked the horse because the name reminded him of his Irish roots – he was born in Kenmare – and his ability to place a bet of six-pence each-way, at a time when gambling was illegal, was an opening skirmish with the betting fraternity which continues to this day.
Even though his commentary voice never betrayed any sign of emotion or bias when he had landed a gamble, or when his own horses, like Be Friendly and Attivo, were winning Group One races, O’Sullevan played an instrumental role in the 1960 winner Merryman II – the last Yorkshire horse to conquer Aintree prior to Auroras Encore’s triumph 12 months ago for Sue and Harvey Smith.
During a trip to Scotland, he was introduced to Merryman’s owner, Winifred Wallace. A war widow, she wanted O’Sullevan – still the only sports commentator to be knighted by the Queen – to recommend a trainer for her horse. He suggested Middleham’s Captain Neville Crump: “He was good fun and she was a hunting girl... it was a good match... the jockey, Gerry Scott, was a good pal of mine and he was a very good winner. Her horse was the right age at nine.”
This was also the BBC’s first live commentary of a race which has claimed a heavy toll over the years – whether it be horses or riders, like Yorkshire-based Paddy Farrell, who was left paralysed by a fall at The Chair 50 years ago, and whose plight inspired the creation of the Injured Jockeys Fund.
A strident campaigner for horse welfare, O’Sullevan – and the late Lord Oaksey – were instrumental in Becher’s Brook being modified so runners could no longer come to harm by sliding into the ditch on the landing side.
“It was made more reasonable and acceptable,” said Sir Peter as he acknowledged the changes that have been made over the past two decades to the most famous fence in racing.
“I look forward to the race with less apprehension than I used to. It was a bit of a fraught event. Apart from the fact I was involved in broadcasting, I was always worried about horses I knew well and riders I knew well. It is less of a challenge than it was and, to a great extent, it has been humanised. Of course it is dangerous, but all activity is fraught with some form of danger.”
Sir Peter O’Sullevan heads the Sir Peter O’Sullevan Charitable Trust. Full details at www.thevoiceofracing.com.