Sunday 18 March 2018

Obituary: Peter O'Sullevan Racing commentator

Born March 3, 1918; died July 29, 2015

Voice of racing: Peter O'Sullevan in the commentary box in 1997
Voice of racing: Peter O'Sullevan in the commentary box in 1997

Peter O'Sullevan, who has died aged 97, was widely acclaimed as "The Voice of Racing" for his fluent commentaries on BBC television

But his mastery of the microphone, though, was only one of his accomplishments. Early on in his career he was an outstanding reporter on the Daily Express, where his deep knowledge of racing's international scene resulted in many an exclusive. His success as a tipster, meanwhile, earned him a huge following among his readers.

From boyhood he had enjoyed a tilt at the bookmakers, and was soon specialising in ante-post betting, taking long prices against horses which he already knew to be fancied for big races as soon as the bookmakers had formed a market on them. Almost invariably the odds were dramatically reduced. In addition, he himself owned horses over more than six decades.

Peter John O'Sullevan was born in Co Kerry, on March 3, 1918, the son of Colonel John Joseph O'Sullevan, DSO. His parents' marriage was not a success and he was brought up by his maternal grandparents, Sir John and Lady Henry, at Gatton Park, near Reigate in Surrey.

A few days after his seventh birthday, the family's head groom took him to Epsom, where he rode his pony round Tattenham Corner and up the straight to the winning post. That experience sowed the seed of his passion for horse racing, richly nourished by his first bet - sixpence each-way on Tipperary Tim, 100-1 winner of the 1928 Grand National.

From Hawtreys prep school at Westgate-on-Sea, Kent, O'Sullevan went to Charterhouse, Surrey, where he suffered from the asthma which was to plague him for the rest of his life. His problems were accentuated by double pneumonia and as a result he was sent to the Collège Alpin in Switzerland, where he became proficient in French.

After being transferred to the Middlesex Hospital, he took a correspondence course in journalism from the Regent Institute, and began submitting articles on a wide variety of subjects to magazines, although only a few were accepted. On being discharged from hospital, he persevered in his attempts to enter journalism, and took over a friend's job as racing correspondent of the Reading Gazette.

With his respiratory condition making him unfit for military duties, on the outbreak of war O'Sullevan enlisted in the Civil Defence Rescue Service, serving during the heavy air raids, while going racing whenever possible. Towards the end of the war he successfully applied for a job with the Press Association, on a salary of £9 9s a week.

Soon O'Sullevan was promoted to chief racecourse representative of PA, and at the same time he was gaining experience in broadcasting. As well as working occasionally for the BBC's Overseas Service, he acted as racereader for senior commentators such as Raymond Glendenning and Peter Dimmock. Then, in January 1948, he commentated on three races for BBC Television at Kempton Park, and in 1949 he covered the first fence of the Grand National, with Clive Graham of the Daily Express as his assistant.

In January 1950, Cyril Luckman retired as "The Scout" of the Daily Express, being succeeded by Clive Graham, and O'Sullevan (largely due to the recommendation of Luckman, who had been greatly impressed by his work at PA) joined the paper's outside racing staff. As well as sending over his daily stories and reports, he gave three selections, including a nap - the best bet of the day.

One of the most important contributions O'Sullevan made to the popularity of the Daily Express took the form of his column 'Racing Off the Record', which became obligatory reading for followers of the horses every Friday for a decade from 1953. As well as producing a succession of exclusive stories, O'Sullevan waged a number of successful campaigns. One such was for the introduction of sponsored races and for rewards for the stable lads in charge of winners of valuable races.

Later, O'Sullevan, always open-minded about innovation, was to be among the most ardent advocates of starting from stalls, used in Britain for the first time at Newmarket in 1965.

Nothing better exemplified O'Sullevan's enterprise and resourcefulness as a reporter than his handling of the Jockey Club's inquiry into Lester Piggott's riding of Ione, beaten by her stablemate Polly Macaw at Lincoln on May 30, 1962. Speculation was rife as to whether any penalty imposed upon Piggott would prevent him from riding in the Derby, or at Royal Ascot.

Piggott had to appear at the Jockey Club's Cavendish Square headquarters close to the surgery of O'Sullevan's dentist.

As the jockey emerged after the hearing, the dental receptionist gave a pre-arranged signal to O'Sullevan, who was parked in a side street. O'Sullevan then drove through the throng of pressmen, opened the passenger door and shouted "Lester, jump in!" After £100 had changed hands on the way back to Newmarket, O'Sullevan exclusively revealed that Piggott had been suspended until July 28.

Following the death in 1964 of the Express's proprietor, Lord Beaverbrook, there were significant changes at the newspaper.

Few were to O'Sullevan's liking, and in July 1973, after a new sports editor had altered his copy and deleted two paragraphs, he resigned and tentatively accepted an offer from the Daily Mail.

But the new owner of the Express, Sir Max Aitken, persuaded him to withdraw his resignation after raising his salary from £5,500 to £9,000 a year and offering other concessions. O'Sullevan continued to write for the Daily Express until January 1985.

By 1960, O'Sullevan had won just four very small races during 21 years of ownership. His persistence was soon to be richly rewarded by Be Friendly, the fine sprinter trained for him by Cyril Mitchell at Epsom.

The other good horse owned by O'Sullevan was Attivo, also trained by Mitchell, and the winner of the Daily Express Triumph Hurdle at Cheltenham's Festival meeting, the Chester Cup and, as a four-year-old in 1974, the Northumberland Plate.

Although he had no particularly close friends among his colleagues, O'Sullevan was popular in the press room. He never made any secret of the extent to which his horses were fancied, and could be very helpful to younger people.

O'Sullevan won a plethora of awards for his contributions to broadcasting, journalism and racing. He was a director of the International Racing Bureau (1979-93) and of the Racing Post (1985-95); and a patron of the Brooke Hospital for Animals, the International League for the Protection of Horses, and the Thoroughbred Rehabilitation Centre.

Knighted in 1997, he had married Patricia Duckworth in 1951. She died in 2010.

© Daily Telegraph

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