HOW WE MET: DICK FRANCIS AND PETER O'SULLEVAN

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The racing commentator Peter O'Sullevan (far right) is 80. Last year he retired after half a century, and was also knighted. He wrote for the 'Daily Express' from the early 1950s, but began his career as a schoolboy tipster; he owned horses too, including successes like Attivo. He lives in Knightsbridge with his wife, Pat. Dick Francis saw victory in the 1956 Grand National vanish when his mount, the Queen Mother's Devon Loch, collapsed. He turned to writing, as racing correspondent for the 'Sunday Express' and author of nearly 40 bestsellers. The Queen - who, like her mother and daughter, reads his novels - awarded him the OBE. Now 77, he lives with his wife, Mary, in the Cayman Islands

PETER O'SULLEVAN: In racing, if you are involved on a professional level, you don't really meet in the sense that you're introduced, you sort of meet by osmosis. You become part of a large family and everybody knows quite a bit more about each other than one would suspect. I had seen Dick race as an amateur, and I thought he was a very nice, quiet rider. Quite obviously, he had extremely good hands. Tom Masson, who used to direct the Bertram Mills circus troupe - Dick as a young man rode ponies for him - once observed "a better pair of hands on a pony I have yet to see". That didn't surprise me at all. His hands were as good as mine were bad.

We have had certain parallels in our lives. We both had ponies when we were seven, and I think we had a rather similar dedication to our particular spheres of activity in later life. Dick left as little as possible to chance. He would walk courses and study the opposition and be as prepared as one can possibly be. I used to do a lot of homework in a similar way.

My first talking part in the Grand National was in 1949 when I was situated down at the first fence. That was the year Dick rode in his first National. He came second. The winner was a horse that he had won several races on - Russian Hero - and Dick had been instrumental in saving its life when it was stricken with colic. The vet said, "Don't let him lie down," and Dick was one of the two peole who took it in turns to walk with him all night. So it was rather ironic that Russian Hero won at 66/1. He was tipped by Alf Rubin from the Daily Worker, who really had no other option - he was the only man who did. I don't think Dick was in the least bit interested in betting. It's a dimension of the sport that hasn't really entered his consciousness.

Dick rode for me in 1951 on The Solid Man, at Newton Abbot in Devon. It was entirely characteristic of the horse to ignore an obstacle, he just ran straight into it. He managed to get to the other side and find a spare leg, but Dick, who was a very good pilot, flew through the air and being unequipped with any extra landing gear, hit the deck. It was so characteristic of him to blame himself. Most jockeys would come back and say "Well thank you very much. I hope you never ask me to ride that again." He apologised and said he felt it was really his fault as the horse had been going extremely well. I was so heartened by his post-race resume of the debacle that I rang Pat and suggested she booked a table at the Caprice.

We covered distances on roads faster in those days because there were no speed restrictions outside built-up areas. I used to pass Dick quite frequently on the way back from the race meetings. I always did drive rather quickly - that was one of the good things about writing for the Express, I had a Jaguar XJ12 written into my contract - but it always amazed me. Jockeys are normally breakneck, but he was one of those rather dedicated drivers.

Dick said when he gave up racing "My heart wasn't ready for retirement but my mind was," and that was how I felt about commentating. I didn't really want to stop because I loved it, but I just felt it would be better to stop before you were gaga.

When he became so immensely successful and went to live overseas, I wouldn't see him except on the rare occasions he came to England. We would meet up, even if it was over a book launch. He's got a very good way of signing books. I would laboriously say, "What's your name, and who's it to?" and people would tell you a long story. He's developed a brilliant technique. He just says, "Hi! ... Dick Francis." I wished I had thought of that earlier.

It's never occurred to me to make any comparisons. We're both fairly non-aggressive, we've both been married to the same dames since the late 1940s. And neither of us liked writing in an intrusive way, which means that probably one wasn't a very good journalist. He comes over for the National and will come up to my commentary box and we'll have a brief exchange. When we get together we usually reminisce and we're liable to talk horses quite a bit. I've got a complete set of first edition Francises, 38 of them. I used to lend them to people and Dick was absolutely horrified when I told him that I had to replace one second-hand for about pounds 500. He said if only he had known they were worth keeping. Dick is astonishingly self-effacing. He is the last person to thrust his views upon anybody. I get the impression that he takes things as they come, and accepts he's going to have to receive awards.

DICK FRANCIS: I can't remember the first time we met. Peter was always someone I very much looked up to, he was a nice man and didn't ask awkward questions. If he got to learn something and asked you about it, and you said to him, "Look Peter, my connections would rather you didn't mention that,"he would abide by that. He wasn't one of those terrible newspapermen, and I never saw him being critical of anyone - he'd never run them down.

I rode for him two or three times, once at Newton Abbot. I saw a lot of him during the jumping season. He had a few very good flat-race horses. I remember listening to him describing one of Attivo's races, but when commentating he would never favour his own horse. It would be just another runner, and you would never in the world think that he owned one. He was a very, very good commentator. He was also very good with young jockeys, and if there were any youngsters coming along he would make them feel quite full of themselves.

Peter and I often met at parties. He was always very sorry about what happened with Devon Loch, in the 1956 Grand National. I think it was the crowd who were cheering for me on the Queen Mother's horse. There was a tremendous crescendo of cheering coming from the stands and I think it was that which caused Devon Loch to lose his footing. I've looked at the newsreel time and time again and just as we were approaching the water jump, which he jumped on the first circuit, you see the horse prick his ears and his hindquarters just refused to work.

We have spent a lot of time together on racecourses, although he has never visited us in the Cayman Islands. Before that, Mary and I lived for 12 years in Fort Lauderdale in Florida. We sometimes met at Paris hotels - I maybe was on holiday but Peter was there doing work - and at the Breeder's Cup in America. If it was after a race, we'd talk about what a good race so-and-so ran. I was often in the press room and would see Peter. He was very surprised when we talked recently that I was with the Sunday Express for so long - 16 years, after I retired from racing. I'd had a nasty fall in 1957 and hurt my spleen and broken my wrist. I had a phone call from Lord Abergavenny, the Queen Mother's racing advisor, who was a great friend. He said: "Look, you are at the top of the tree now, and the Queen Mother doesn't like putting you up on some of her younger horses ... If I were you, I would get out now."

I wrote three articles for John Junor at the Sunday Express, and he wanted me to join the permanent staff in March 1957. I didn't like asking people questions and fearing that they didn't want to be asked this and that. I wasn't a good newspaperman; I would much rather write about what races were coming up. Peter wasn't an aggressive newspaperman either, that's why owners didn't mind talking to him. They would tell him things other newspapermen weren't privy to. I like to think I was writing along those lines too. People like Peter did newspapers a world of good. A lot of people I rode for hated the press and wouldn't say a word, but they would open their mouths to us.

When driving, I used to nip along a bit. But coming back from the races, because my wife was in the car I would behave myself and drive respectably. We had our two boys, Merrick and Felix, with us as well. My wife doesn't like racing but she always used to come with me to races. She hated to think of me coming home in an ambulance if she wasn't there. Peter was always very helpful to Mary and would say, "I will find out if he's all right." Pat, Peter's wife, used to come to races occasionally, but wasn't a great racegoer.

Peter and I never stepped on each other's toes. I was a Sunday newspaperman, and he wrote for the daily - he writes a lot faster than I do. He rarely went to Fleet Street. I used to do my piece on Thursday, and take it up on Friday. The editor liked me to discuss it with him. I would always read Peter's piece first, and I used to love his writing. We've known each other for 50 years now. I love talking to Peter, and I think he likes talking to me. We have run along parallel lines in what we talk about and also what we write.

! Peter O'Sullevan's autobiography, 'Calling the Horses', is published by Stanley Paul (pounds 7.99). Dick Francis's new book of short stories, 'Field of 13', is published on Thursday by Michael Joseph (pounds 16.99).

Comments