'Voice of racing' bridles at Grand National loss

Peter O'Sullevan is horrified that next Saturday's Aintree race will be the last to be televised by the BBC

Sir Peter O'Sullevan, television's "voice of racing" has strongly criticised the BBC for failing to secure the right to televise the Grand National. Sir Peter, one of Britain's most respected sports commentators, who covered the race for 50 years, said the broadcaster was failing in its duty as a public service broadcaster.

Next Saturday's race will be the last time that the Grand National will be shown on the BBC before Channel 4 takes over responsibility for broadcasting it.

Sir Peter, celebrated by Aintree racecourse where the race is held as a Grand National Legend, described the BBC's failure to keep the race as a "horrendous development of the Beeb abrogating what I consider their responsibility to cover a national event... If they are not there for celebrating national events, what are they there for?"

He added: "The National is a real people's race. And as a people's race what they [the BBC] are doing is even more unacceptable. They could say the reasons are fiscal but... it's a matter of allegiance and enthusiasm and they haven't got the enthusiasm... I don't think it has enough public responsibility."

The loss of the Grand National means for the first time commercial television has a monopoly on Britain's biggest horse racing events, including the Derby, Royal Ascot and the Cheltenham Festival. Sir Peter said Channel 4 would do the race "extremely well" but that adverts would interrupt the "narrative".

Now retired, the 94-year-old will make his annual pilgrimage to Aintree next week. His passion for horses began when he was placed on one at the age of two. By the time he was six he was riding his own pony and at 10 he was a regular better on races. His dream was to become a jockey but instead he became a racing journalist, going on to commentate on the Grand National between 1947 and 1997.

A lifelong owner of horses, Sir Peter has had dozens of race winners over the years on courses around the country. His last horse, Exulto, is now retired. Speaking from his Chelsea apartment in London, Sir Peter said: "If the opportunity arose I'd have another one like a shot. I feel a bit lonely without a horse because I have always had at least one."

But it's not all been horses. He was devoted to his late wife Pat, with whom he spent more than 60 years. After decades together, Sir Peter nursed his wife while she had Alzheimer's until her death, aged 89, on New Year's Eve in 2009. The following year he lost his beloved poodle Topo, which he had once driven to Paris to see a veterinary specialist. Now he devotes his energy to raising money for animal welfare organisations.

He remains passionate about "the great race" and recalls how one of the "most exhilarating performances" he has seen came from a runner-up, Crisp, in 1973. "It was an absolutely staggering performance... You could see his limbs turn to jelly and he was wobbling and ran home well – but that little tiger, that little demon of a horse, Red Rum, he just ran him down." He thinks the 2011 winner, Ballabriggs, will be the horse to beat this year but added: "I've backed a horse called Cappa Bleu. I think he's got a good chance."

The quest for speed over the years has seen "former flat race horses who are much more fragile" taking part and Sir Peter said: "It's a very dangerous sport and inevitably there are going to be disasters."

Nine horses died in the past decade, making it the deadliest in the modern history of the race, and the set field of 40 runners, introduced in 2000, has made it more crowded and dangerous, claims Animal Aid.

Describing the deaths of horses as "the unacceptable face of racing" David Muir, the RSCPA's equine consultant, said: "This race is always going to have a higher risk factor than a normal race, which has eight to 10 horses." A number of specially trained equine RSPCA inspectors will attend this year's event for the first time.