Racing: Friend of the horses finally hangs up his microphone
Profile: Peter O'Sullevan
Saturday 29 November 1997
He may not feel like it as he squeezes into his eyrie above Newbury this afternoon, just four months shy of his 80th birthday, but Peter O'Sullevan is the racing equivalent of Elle MacPherson.
Just as fashion has "the Body", so the turf has "the Voice", and however you choose to measure fame, there are few greater accolades than to lay claim to the definite article. He deserves it, of course. When sports broadcasting was all clipped moustaches and God Save The King, the Voice was there, with its tidings from deep within the fog that was monochrome.
It brought Arkle and Mill House to the masses, called Red Rum home as he won his third National "like a fresh horse", and then Desert Orchid - "he's beginning to get up" - in the Gold Cup 12 years later. Above all, O'Sullevan was the Saturday background noise for generations of British children. People who have never visited a betting shop or racecourse in their adult life can still be swept back 20 years by the sound of the Voice changing pitch as the leaders pass the furlong pole.
But it is the sort of celebrity which can work both ways. "I'm only a bloody commentator," he said recently, as he considered the attention which his impending retirement has attracted. In truth, though, commentating has been just a small part of O'Sullevan's life on the turf.
As a punter and an owner, he has fed money into both ends of the machine, and as a journalist he has helped with the servicing and even the occasional major overhaul. For 36 years, until 1986, his column in the Daily Express was impeccably informed, thoughtful and a regular source of winners.
He was instrumental in the paper's sponsorship - recently discontinued, much to his disgust - of the Triumph Hurdle, a race won in his colours by Attivo in 1974. His commentary on the closing stages was famously impartial, though shortly afterwards came one of the only recorded instances of an O'Sullevan "errr". "Attivo," he said, "owned by... errr... Peter O'Sullevan." He sounded almost embarrassed.
This much is in the form book and the archives, not to mention his autobiography, Calling The Horses, but the strand which has linked it all is sometimes overlooked. For O'Sullevan has always been thoroughly biased - he is firmly, irredeemably on the side of the horses.
This was not something that might have been predicted when the asthma which blighted his childhood was wrongly diagnosed by one doctor as an allergy to horses, and by the time his mistake had been realised, O'Sullevan's beloved first pony had been sold.
Not before it had kindled a passion for all things equine, though, and he joined the Press Association's racing desk in 1944. Not long afterwards, he was the race-reader assisting Peter Dimmock, one of the BBC's first commentators, and thanks to Dimmock's generous recommendation - "he is as good as I am bad" - soon permanently behind the microphone which only now is he ready to leave.
Through all that time, O'Sullevan has campaigned to improve the lot of the horses, and in doing so has shown more compassion and vision than racing administrators half his age. When, for example, an American "outsider" called Carrie Humble decided to set up the first (and still the only) centre in Britain to rehabilitate ex-racehorses, O'Sullevan was a crucial ally.
"It would have been very difficult to get as far as we have without his name being behind us, and without him continuing to talk about us," she says. "The first time I spoke to him, I was a little in awe of him, he was the great Voice of Racing, but he just made me want to do the best that I could. I sometimes say to the people in the yard, `Remember that Peter O'Sullevan could turn up here tomorrow. I want this place clean'. He's a fine man, and I haven't met very many of those in this world, and I'm a well-travelled lady. He's a man I wouldn't want to let down."
The good news for the horses is that the campaigning will not stop. "Racehorses should be caught," O'Sullevan says, "before they start the downward spiral that ends at very unappealing markets. I think that it's one of the good things about our time that there is a greater feeling of compassion towards animals, a feeling that we are responsible, as so-called superior creatures, for the lesser creatures. Hopefully, we will get an initiative going in time to get official funding for rehabilitation, and that's something I would hope to be involved in."
Abuse of the whip, too, will still nag at him in retirement. "There is no excuse for abuse, and I think there is abuse at times when horses are tired and the money is down. We are slightly accustomed to this business of having a right crack at a horse, but if it appears that racing people go to extreme lengths to achieve their aims, racing will lose its appeal."
It would be a fitting tribute to the man perched high above the grandstand if the jockeys riding a finish in the Hennessy left their whips unflourished. Wishful thinking, perhaps, but the race itself is still a carefully chosen sign-off.
The best two horses to carry his colours, Attivo and Be Friendly, a fine sprinter in the late 1960s, were both winners at Newbury. It was also the site of a serious falling-out with his employers when, in 1979, the Grandstand director cut short the Hennessy coverage to catch the communal singing before a rugby match at Twickenham. It is 32 years, too, since O'Sullevan helped to audition Julian Wilson (not to mention Michael Stoute) for the job of BBC Racing Correspondent, 24 hours before Arkle won the Hennessy, giving 33lb to the runner-up.
"That's why I fancy packing up at Newbury," he says. "Also, it's not far from Chelsea, and there aren't going to be too many runners in the Hennessy, so I shouldn't make too many cock-ups. I've been making mistakes recently, and I was thinking that if I wrote another book, I'd call it `Miscalling The Horses.' "
He should, at least, be spared a repeat of the worst moment of his 50 years as a commentator, the debacle of the 1993 Grand National. "In the Foinavon year [when most of the field fell at the 23rd fence], it was Michael O'Hehir who had to do the difficult job, I had nothing to do except rather uncharitably hope that Foinavon might suffer some very small impediment because I was on Honey End [the runner-up]. But the 1993 race was rather fraught. I was saying, `this cannot be a race', but there was always that one per cent of doubt that I might be wrong, and then I'd really have blown it. And then what were you to do when they'd jumped the last, when after all they'd completed two circuits. Did you record it with at least a little hyperbole, or ignore them, which would have seemed very discourteous."
Inevitably, he pitched it just right. O'Sullevan will, as always, be painfully nervous as he prepares for his final day at the office. Even now, his sleep is sometimes disturbed by a nightmare in which dozens of horses are passing his position and he cannot name a single one. He will also acknowledge the tributes, of which there will be hundreds, with all possible modesty. One of the best is offered by Carrie Humble. "He is," she says, "a very precious piece of England."
The voice of racing
Arkle (1964 Cheltenham Gold Cup):
"They're rounding the home turn and this is it! It's Arkle on the stands side for Ireland and Mill House for England on the far side. Arkle just taking the lead as they come to the last fence. It's gonna be Arkle if he jumps it. He's over and clear. This is the champion, this is the best we've seen for a long time. Arkle is the winner of the Gold Cup . . . "
Allez France (1974 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe):
"And Allez France unleashes a run on the outside. And it's Allez France, the Queen of Longchamp, who strikes the front . . . "
Red Rum (1977 Grand National):
"He's getting the most tremendous cheer from the crowd. They're 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 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 . . . "
Sagaro (1977 Ascot Gold Cup):
"It's Buckskin from Sagaro. Lester Piggott looking to his left for danger. He thinks he's got Buckskin cold! And it's Sagaro now going into the lead. Here comes Ascot history. Sagaro's going to win it for the third time, and gonna coast home at that . . . "
Sea Pigeon (1980 Champion Hurdle):
"And Sea Pigeon's going to avenge that defeat of last year! He's striding up to the line, the veteran 10-year-old. He's won it at last! Sea Pigeon wins the Champion Hurdle, Monksfield is beaten for the first time in three years . . . "
Dawn Run (1986 Cheltenham Gold Cup)
"It's Wayward Lad trying to break his Cheltenham hoodoo, being pressed by Dawn Run in the centre. And the mare's beginning to get up! And as they come to the line, she's made it! Dawn Run has won it from Wayward Lad. And Jonjo O'Neill punches the air as the mare has made Turf history - she's become the first to win the Champion Hurdle and the Gold Cup . . . "
Desert Orchid (1986 Cheltenham Gold Cup)
"Yahoo, who loves the mud is full of running, but Desert Orchid is rallying, he's trying to come again towards the near side. Yahoo on the far side, Desert Orchid on the near side. There's a tremendous cheer from the crowd. Desert Orchid is going to win it! Desert Orchid has won the Gold Cup . . . "
- Compiled by Ian Davies
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