Saturday 19 October 2019

Obituary: John McCririck

Flamboyant racing pundit who became notorious for his political incorrectness

Punter's Pal: John McCririck. Photo: Barry Batchelor/PA Wire
Punter's Pal: John McCririck. Photo: Barry Batchelor/PA Wire Newsdesk Newsdesk

John McCririck, who died last Friday aged 79, was for many years the most recognisable figure in horse racing and arguably the most politically incorrect broadcaster on television.

As the betting pundit for Channel 4, McCririck made his home among the bookmakers in the ring, where he was notable for his mutton-chop whiskers, large Lusitania cigars and his music-hall costume. He liked to affect a lilac double-breasted suit with tweed cape, or an Old Harrovian blazer, and possessed an extensive wardrobe of weird hats: boaters, deerstalkers, fezzes and pith helmets.

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Thus dressed, McCririck would shout the odds before the off, waving his hands about in the manner of a demented tic-tac man. His fingers were festooned with bling, and he sometimes brandished an African fly-whisk.

Regular viewers quickly became expert in bookmakers' slang, learning from McCririck that "double carpet" meant odds of 33-1, that "Burlington Bertie" was 100-30 and that 6-4 was "Ear 'ole".

In his latter years McCririck became part of a double act, accompanied in the ring by the much more self-effacing betting expert Tanya Stevenson, whom he habitually addressed as "Female", as in: "Female - what's happening on the exchanges?"

McCririck's well-documented misogyny was probably all part of his act. "The most important thing about [women] is the size of their breasts," he liked to say. He called his wife, Jenny, "The Booby" ("a silly South American bird that cannot fly but squawks a lot"), adding: "Her job is the chancellor of the exchequer. Drives me around, does the cleaning, cooks. I never go in the kitchen. A man shouldn't. Never make a woman a cup of tea or buy a bunch of flowers. And never ask her if she wants to go to the cinema or the theatre. She will only complain. Take her to the dogs."

He claimed that he never bought his wife Christmas or birthday presents. His wife, it should be said, appeared to take all this in her stride: "It doesn't matter really, does it?" she once observed.

"Big Mac" was, however, much more than an entertaining buffoon. His knowledge of the betting industry was profound, his passion for racing self-evident, and he had a strong crusading instinct where he sensed corruption or injustice.

In particular, he always took the side of the small punter against the big bookmakers if he felt that the customer was getting a raw deal. For every professional in the racing industry who considered McCririck little more than an irritating loudmouth, there were probably 10 ordinary racegoers who liked and admired him.

John McCririck was born in Surbiton, Surrey, on April 17, 1940 and educated at Victoria College, Jersey, and at Harrow, where he managed three O-levels in between offering odds to fellow pupils on cross-country races. His parents wanted him to join the Diplomatic Service; instead he became a waiter at the Dorchester (he was said to have been dismissed for spilling soup over a diner), then worked for a one-armed, illegal off-course bookmaker; as a tic-tac man; clerk for a bookmaking firm; and private handicapper.

His first excursion into journalism was as a results sub-editor on the BBC's Grandstand, and he then became a writer for Sporting Life, where he covered the murky world of betting. In 1979 he won the British Press Campaigning Journalist of the Year award for an investigation revealing that certain Tote officials had transmitted money into betting pools after races had been run in order to reduce the payouts. A judicial inquiry set up to examine McCririck's allegations later accepted that malpractice had taken place.

In 1984 McCririck successfully sued the Daily Star, winning substantial damages, after the paper claimed he owed money to his bookmaker. In the same year he left Sporting Life and began to concentrate on television. He had worked for ITV since 1981, and when the newly launched Channel 4 began its racing coverage in 1984 his role was expanded.

McCririck's style fitted perfectly into a programme that sought - by contrast with the BBC's more decorous coverage - to bring a real flavour of the racetrack to the screen. At the same time he was highly professional, preparing meticulously before each race, so that he was master of all the relevant statistics. "All horse racing is a jigsaw puzzle," he once observed. "You've got the weight, the draw, the going and the form. TV can bring something that the papers can't bring: how the horse looked in the paddock and going down to the start, how the market moves are going."

McCririck called the racing press "the most supine journalists in the world", and he delighted in causing controversy in the sport. Among his bugbears was jockeys hitting horses with the whip. "It's the unacceptable side of racing," he said. "They use euphemisms - "giving them a reminder", "waking him up", and all that sort of thing. The best horses would still win. One or two results would be different, but so what? Horses can't tell you if they are in pain."

As time went by, however, McCririck's image began to grate. In 2005 he appeared in Celebrity Big Brother, alongside Germaine Greer, the model Caprice and Brigitte Nielsen, the former wife of Sylvester Stallone. In the show he walked around in white underwear and declined to talk for three days in protest at being denied the Diet Coke he had requested. His comments on the other inmates were predictably offensive: he labelled Caprice "cash register limited".

In the same year he gave an ill-judged address at the funeral of his friend Robin Cook, the racing fan and former foreign secretary. Dressed in a purple jacket and Texan tie, McCririck told the congregation at St Giles' Cathedral in Edinburgh that Tony Blair should have broken his holiday to attend: "I believe the Prime Minister's snub to Robin's family and to millions of New Labour voters demonstrates a petty vindictiveness and moral failure, opting to continue snorkelling instead of doing his duty."

In 2006 McCririck and his wife appeared in the television series Wife Swap alongside Edwina Currie and her husband John.

As he reached his 70th birthday, Channel 4 began to restrict McCririck's appearances to only a handful of race meetings. For a man once said to have been paid more than anyone else in the racing media, it was a severe blow. "I feel publicly humiliated," he said.

When Channel 4 finally sacked him in 2012, the 72-year-old announced that he would sue his employers for "ageism". The employment tribunal ruled against him in November 2013, and the truth is that he had become an anachronistic figure.

John McCririck was a supporter of Newcastle United, a poker player and a technophobe. Atheistic and right-wing, he professed to dislike children. His technique in interviews was to run himself down before his interrogators could get in first. "I am nasty," he would tell them, "and greedy."

He claimed to have no friends, and he disliked parties. At his favourite restaurant, The Ivy, in the West End of London, he would order duck salad, crab bisque, shepherd's pie and a pudding, with a bottle of Beringer Zinfandel. "I'm a creature of habit," he said.

He is survived by his wife, to whom he once paid a compliment of sorts: "The Booby is quite attractive, actually. She had a decent chest in her time."

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