Friday 24 November 2017

Darkness falls on racing with stilling of O'Sullevan's voice of calm authority

Racing legends Lester Piggott and Peter O'Sullevan
Racing legends Lester Piggott and Peter O'Sullevan

Paul Hayward

Peter O'Sullevan was too ill to get up and was not keen to be photographed in his ailing state but, as he sat in bed last October, he glowed, chuckled, reeled off stories and exuded the same energy that carried him through a lifetime of adventures on The Turf.

The occasion was an interview to mark the republication of his autobiography - 'Calling the Horses' - and I left his flat in Chelsea floating with the joy of an hour in his company. O'Sullevan was frail but otherwise undiminished by age or illness.

Around his bed were piles of notes, pictures and correspondence. Relaunching the book after 25 years had been no minor enterprise. For him it meant a meticulous resifting of his life and a chance to take pleasure all over again in the great races, characters and, yes, bets, that made his story so compelling.

Darkness falls on racing with the loss of its voice. To those who lived through his commentaries on Arkle, the great Grundy-Bustino Ascot race of 1975, Desert Orchid or the 'bomb scare' Grand National of 1997, he was what racing sounded like. His mellifluous delivery carried deep notes of urgency without ever tipping into melodrama.

His generation understood the value of self-editing - of not speaking for speaking's sake - and knew that measured interventions which added to the TV pictures were the highest form of the broadcaster's art.

In his silk pyjamas that day he said of that sonorous broadcasting voice: "It wasn't cultivated in the least. My aim was to be as accurate as possible with a little bit of colour, but not too much. My favourite broadcaster was Henry Longhurst. He didn't say much but it was what he didn't say that brought the game alive. He was so good at it and so marvellously laid-back and conversational and informative at the same time. Understating everything.

"A bit of drama, and no bias of course. Bias is really annoying and trying to be funny is tiresome too. It was all right for Murray Walker because people didn't bet on motor racing in those days. There's nothing funny about doing your balls [on a horse race]. The punters are haemorrhaging fiscally anyway, aren't they? They don't want any bloody jokes about it".

This had him giggling, because O'Sullevan understood the punter's lot. He was one himself, inveterately. The cat-and-mouse game between bookies and gamblers was where he tested his knowledge, which stretched to all corners of the game.


With his charm and charisma he found it easy to cultivate relationships with the great names of his time. Lester Piggott confided in him. Vincent O'Brien, the greatest trainer of his era, treated him as an equal.

Though highborn in Kenmare, Co Kerry, O'Sullevan was classless. As the BBC's racing man, Frank Keogh observed as the obituaries rolled: "Meeting your heroes normally comes with a warning, but there was no need to worry with Peter O'Sullevan."

He glided between racing's social echelons with ease and became the voice of calm authority to betting shop punters, of whom he was usually at least one step ahead in his own financial speculating. In his commentaries, though, he prided himself on his neutrality, no matter now big his own investment.

Most of the great commentators are content to be simply that. But O'Sullevan's personality spread across the whole racing spectrum. His enthusiasm found outlets as racehorse owner, Fleet Street correspondent and later indefatigable fundraiser for his animal welfare charities.

His longevity was astounding. When he missed the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe last October, it was the first time in 70 runnings that Paris had been deprived of his presence for France's biggest race. Born in the last year of the First World War, he galloped round Tattenham Corner on a pony called Fairy in 1925. He covered 50 Grand Nationals and 14,000 races before retirement claimed him, sort of, in 1997.

To lose Richie Benaud and O'Sullevan so close together shakes the foundations of Britain's collective sporting memory. It deprives us not only of great voices and insight but part of the spirit of the sports they described so well. It may be too much to hope that modern producers now ease the pressure on today's commentators to fill silences with noise and to over-emote, but a walk back through time to appreciate the mastery of O'Sullevan and his golden generation might produce a few improvements.

O'Sullevan would put it no more strongly than that, because he was not one to force his ideas on others. He combined the strong will of a man frantic to win races with his horses and beat the bookies with his bets with the instincts and manners of a gentleman. He looked for the fun in life. And found it.

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