The Voice of Racing was always a classic winner

Following the death yesterday of Sir Peter O’Sullevan, his former colleague on the Daily Express sports desk, NORMAN GILLER, offers this tribute

Mute all television sports commentaries
Blinker the thoroughbred horses
Close the bookies’ satchels
Shut the nation’s racecourses
The Voice of Racing is silenced

Sir Peter O'Sullevan: a master of the microphone
Sir Peter O’Sullevan: a master of the microphone

The Master, Peter O’Sullevan, died yesterday, aged 97.

I had the privilege of having my desk seat just nine feet from his for 10 years in the golden days of the Daily Express when he was a legend in his own racing time.

There was nobody in his class as a commentator, and I am talking all sports.

And there was nobody to touch him as an informed and informative writer on racing.

The last time I saw my dear old friend was a few years ago when I was working on a Frankie Dettori feature, and we joked that as he was into his 90s, he was hanging on for his telegram from the Queen.

Her Majesty would no doubt have hand-delivered it, because they were genuine friends through their mutual love of racing.

Sir Peter was everything you would hope for in a hero: modest, quietly spoken, always immaculately dressed, authoritative without any arrogance, and a thorough gentleman.

His delivery at the microphone was never equalled. Tune into his 1977 description of Red Rum’s historic third Grand National triumph, or Desert Orchid’s memorable Cheltenham Gold Cup victory in 1989, and you will understand why his peers bowed the knee to him as the king of commentators.

You should be able to hear his unique voice as you read this:

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!

One of the defining moments of O'Sullevan's commentary career, when Red Rum won the National for a third time in 1977
One of the defining moments of O’Sullevan’s commentary career, when Red Rum won the National for a third time in 1977

Peter, who had worked for the Press Association before becoming the Express racing expert, a position he would hold for 36 years, was not only a brilliant racing prophet but – very discreetly – also a hugely successful punter.

I often picked up his telephone when he was away from the desk to take calls from the likes of Lester Piggott, probably the greatest of jockeys who was known to consult Peter before taking a mount.

Peter and Clive Graham – “The Scout”, who would join O’Sullevan on the BBC’s commentary team – were worth many thousands to the Express circulation when it sold 4.2 million copies a day.

But Peter did not always share his best advice with his readers. He was too shrewd for that, because he knew it would bring down the odds of the horses he was backing.

Born in County Kerry on March 3, 1918, he was the son of a distinguished war hero, Colonel John O’Sullevan, from whom he got his love of horses. Educated at Charterhouse and then in Switzerland, Peter told me that he knew the racing formbook at school better than any text book.

Peter commentated on 50 Grand Nationals and 14,000 races in total for the BBC before retiring in 1997, and you could have counted his wrong calls on the fingers of a one-armed bandit.

His most precious possession was his binoculars that he commandeered from a Second World War German U-Boat, and he used them for all his commentaries, with a chart of all the jockeys’ silks on cards for each race that he carried with him to every racecourse and commentary box.

O'Sullevan with his much-loved 1974 Triumph Hurdle winner, Attivo
O’Sullevan with his much-loved 1974 Triumph Hurdle winner, Attivo

He was an enthusiastic racehorse owner, including his beloved Be Friendly, who won the King’s Stand Stakes at Ascot and the Prix de l’Abbaye at Longchamp.

But his favourite horse was Attivo, whose victory in the 1974 Triumph Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival, a race then sponsored by his employers, the Express, stretched his famously objective commentating style to the limit. The Triumph, for four-year-olds in their first season at National Hunt, has long been notorious as one of the most competitive fixtures on the Festival card.

Yet somehow, on that day more than 40 years ago, Peter suppressed his own mounting excitement as he called home the finishers. Not until after the horses were past the finishing post, and Peter, ever the professional, delivered the formal 1-2-3 to the millions of viewers watching around the country, did he give any hint of his personal involvement: “And it’s first Attivo, owned by, uh… Peter O’Sullevan… trained by Cyril Mitchell and ridden by Robert Hughes.”

Knighted after his 50th Grand National in 1997, he set up a charitable trust that has raised thousands of pounds for animal and racing-related charities.

I was once at a lunch at the Cheshire Cheese with Sir Peter and another commentating master, cricket’s Richie Benaud, who often enjoyed a day at the races. I said how privileged I was to be in the company of the two greatest sports commentators.

“Wash your mouth out,” said Richie in his blunt Aussie way. “I can’t be mentioned in the same breath as Pete.”

He then turned to Peter and said: “Talking of breath, do you ever take a breath at the mic? It always seems as if you commentate without pausing for a second. Remarkable.”

Peter did not comment. His next boast would have been his first.

We will not hear his like again.

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