Racing Heroes: Sir Peter O’Sullevan
Mike Deasy starts a new Racing Hub series on Racing Heroes – beginning with Sir Peter O’Sullevan
Peter O’Sullevan and Clive Graham were my uncles. Well, that’s what it seemed like to a four-year-old, a single child looked after by his nan, whilst his parents were out at work.
Television’s Watch With Mother still had a hold, but other programmes were of growing interest. The trouble was, once Andy Pandy had waved goodbye, and the slightly scary Welsh programme (coverage of the National Eisteddfod with people in their hoods and robes gave me the willies) was over, that was it for the afternoon.
But every so often, there was coverage of racing and the avuncular voices of Messrs O’Sullevan and Graham were reassuring, and my nan also perked up when the BBC cameras were at, say, Goodwood or Ascot.
It didn’t take long for me to become enthralled by the turf. I quickly got the concept – the fastest horse won. And sometimes, that brought a smile to nan’s face.
And it started a life-long admiration for the “voice of racing”.
Not only did his dulcet tones offer reassurance to this shy child, it helped to slowly build an understanding of one of the most complex of sports.
What I got first was the betting but, in the early days, the BBC were not overly enamoured with that aspect of the sport – Reithian attitudes still prevailed. But O’Sullevan would pause at key moments when the racecourse announcer was giving out the starting prices.
I remember when the cameras once caught Clive Graham, who commented from the parade ring, heading towards the rails bookmakers. “Off to collect” said O’Sullevan.
I was five when the first Grand National was televised, and it was one of two times that my parents, in those days, showed any interest in racing. The other event was the Derby. I have been told that I was taken to Epsom when still in the pram.
I knew who O’Sullevan and Clive Graham were, and was introducing them to my parents, who were entering part of my world, albeit briefly.
I also got to realise that O’Sullevan and Graham were the racing correspondents of the Daily Express. When sports commentators were also employed on Fleet Street, their respective papers were included in the credits.
So, another aspect of Peter O’Sullivan’s involvement with racing became apparent and, as luck would have it, the Daily Express was the paper we had delivered.
So, at around the age of eight, I was reading what he wrote. When I say reading, it was more looking. Looking at the daily racing pull-put in Beaverbrook’s top-selling paper, and absorbing, to me, the vast amount of information associated with the turf. The Sporting Life was yet to be encountered.
And I was getting to know the names of the horses, not least Arkle, who was the standout horse of the time, with Peter O’Sullevan providing the soundtrack.
He provided the soundtrack to my racing life from the late fifties to 1997 when he hung up the binoculars, which came from a German submarine, and was knighted.
There is no denying that towards the end of his commentating career, the edge had gone, but there was still no finer timbre.
O’Sullevan started commentating on television in 1947, having previously worked on radio, “assisting” Raymond Glendenning who until then commentated on virtually every sport with varying degrees of accuracy, particularly racing.
There are plenty of standout moments from O’Sullevan’s race-calling. He captured the emotion of Dawn Run winning the 1986 Cheltenham Gold Cup: “the mare’s beginning to get up, and as they come to the line, she’s made it, Dawn Run has won it. Dawn Run has won it from Wayward Lad, and Jonjo O’Neill punches the air… The stands, everyone on their feet, erupting here at Cheltenham.”
He called the “Race of the Century” when Grundy and Bustino battled it out in the 1975 King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot: “Bustino on the far side, Grundy on the near side. The three-year-old and the four-year old. They race into the final 150 yards, and it’s Grundy going on from Bustino… Bustino fighting his way back. As they come to the line, Grundy wins it, Bustino second”.
Two years later there was Red Rum.
“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, there’s a furlong now between Red Rum and his third Grand National triumph! And he’s coming up to the line, to win it like a fresh horse in great style. It’s hats off and a tremendous reception, you’ve never heard one like it at Liverpool. Red Rum wins the National!”
But my favourite was the 1974 Triumph Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival: “And it’s first Attivo, owned by, er, Peter O’Sullevan… trained by Cyril Mitchell and ridden by Robert Hughes.”
We have some of sports’ finest commentators now calling home the horses, but none will match “the voice” in his pomp.
After he stopped commentating, he would still be at the races, still robbing the bookmakers. I’d shyly smile at him. He’d smile back. How I wish I could have told him what he’d meant to me for over 50 years.
Sir Peter O’Sullevan died in July 2015, aged 97. His legacy lives on, not only through the broadcasting archives, but also through The Voice of Racing: The Sir Peter O’Sullevan Charitable Trust.
Now in its 23rd year the Trust has distributed over £5 million equally between the six charities it supports:
Blue Cross, Brooke, Compassion in World Farming, World Horse Welfare, Racing Welfare and The British Thoroughbred ReTraining Centre.
In addition, the Trust has pledged over £6 million to other charitable causes, mainly equine or equine related.
♦ The Voice of Racing by Terence Gilbert (reproduced above) is available as a limited edition signed print from The Osborne Studio Gallery https://www.osg.uk.com/
Racing Heroes series
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The Aga Khan http://wp.me/p8e3Dl-3SB
Best Mate and Kauto Star http://wp.me/p8e3Dl-3Rk
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Sir Peter O’Sullevan http://wp.me/p8e3Dl-3NB