Julian Wilson: BBC racing correspondent for three decades who became disillusioned with the direction taken by the sport he loved
Wednesday 23 April 2014
Julian Wilson, the BBC's racing correspondent for 31 years, was a man of his time, and yet ahead of it, too. He was an Old Harrovian, his appearance and voice were suavely elegant –some would say posh – and his delivery measured and rather serious in tone. And he spotted the way the sport he loved and cared about was developing – detrimentally, to his and now other eyes –far sooner than many. It was not just the increasing populism and undoubted dumbing down of its presentation he deplored, but also aspects of the background structure of the industry, including a glut of fixtures and obsession with commercialism.
He died from prostate cancer, from which he had suffered, with periods of remission, for 12 years. He had not had a mainstream on-screen presence since his retirement from the BBC in 1997 but was one of the Turf's instantly recognisable figures, his hair always immaculately slicked back, and wearing tweeds, pinstripes or morning dress (a model of correctness with top hat slightly, but not jauntily, angled) according to season. But it was his depth of knowledge of the sport's essential cerebral matters – the form-book, the stud-book – that hooked the imagination of those of us whose early introduction to racing was through black-and-white television images.
Julian David Bonhôte Wilson's own first encounter came at the age of nine, when an aunt showed him the racing page of a newspaper and invited him to select some winners. That led to a lifelong fascination and while at Harrow, from 1953 to 1958, he became a discreet, but seasoned, under-age gambler before the days of any sort of mobile or online communication. "I was known," he later recalled, "as the boy who was always hanging around the telephone box."
Wilson began his working life on a Glasgow newspaper – his father Peter Wilson was one of the leading sports journalists of his era, writing for the Daily Mirror in a forthright style with the tag "The Man They Can't Gag" – and was employed on various Mirror Group titles until securing his position with the BBC.
There had been 800 replies to the advertisement for that job, whittled down to a shortlist of six. En route by train from London to the final screen tests at Newbury racecourse in 1965, five of the candidates – who included, famously, a man later to find fame in another racing sphere, the multiple champion trainer Sir Michael Stoute – went second class. The always-particular Wilson, however, travelled in first, so he could study his lines in peace.
Through four decades Wilson, as anchorman, interviewer, and Peter O'Sullevan, as commentator, headed the BBC's racing coverage. Their professionalism was absolute and tested early. In late 1967 an outbreak of foot and mouth disease led to the cancellation of all racing in Britain, but Peter Dimmock, the head of outside broadcasting, demanded a meeting for Boxing Day viewers. Wilson found an obscure fixture at Cagnes-sur-Mer in the south of France, the frontmen and camera crews made the journey and, despite six inches of water in the commentary box and a blown monitor, managed to complete the transmission.
Though it never showed, there was tension between Wilson and O'Sullevan for nearly half of their working partnership. In 1981, Wilson had been offered the position as ITV racing commentator but had turned it down because he was under the impression that O'Sullevan intended to retire in 1983, at the age of 65, and that he, Wilson, would get the BBC top job. He had always filled in as commentator in O'Sullevan's absence.
But in the event, O'Sullevan retired only from his newspaper work. In his 1998 autobiography Some You Win, Wilson wrote that he felt "betrayed" by his colleague. "I was quite shattered," he said, "but the ITV job had gone. It cannot be denied that the misunderstanding affected my relationship with O'Sullevan."
The two men eventually retired from the BBC just four weeks apart, Wilson eventually acknowledging that the gimmicky and brash approach to racing coverage – promulgated by the up-and-coming new rivals Channel 4 – was not for him. By then he was working alongside Clare Balding and he admitted that she, too, was beginning to get on his nerves.
During his time with the BBC, any majoring on betting was off-limits because of the Royal charter, but the astute and aware Wilson arranged to have a camera position in front of a bookmaker's board for his viewers' benefit. He was diligent in his study of form, both on paper and on the Newmarket gallops near his home, and by all accounts made a tidy second income from punting; one of his notable coups was a substantial bet at 33-1 on a then-obscure horse called Shergar (trained in Newmarket by Stoute, by then a great friend) to win the 1981 Derby. The winnings helped pay for his second wife Alison's engagement ring and a honeymoon suite at the Dorchester.
By his own admission he enjoyed the high life; as a dashing young man he had been something of a "deb's delight", holidaying in Barbados and Mustique and having fun on the Cresta Run. Away from racing his passion was Swindon Town FC and cricket: his grandfather had played with WG Grace, and he was an enthusiastic spin bowler for the Newmarket XI – though he was once, to his chagrin, biffed for six sixes in an over). He was a racehorse owner and manager for many years, the best to carry his colours being the high-class juvenile Tumbledownwind (bought for 4,800 guineas as a yearling and later sold privately for a substantial profit) and Royal Ascot winner Tykeyvor.
After leaving the BBC, Wilson continued working as a freelance journalist; a column in the sport's trade paper The Racing Post under the heading "Mr Angry" enabled him to vent some of his frustrations. He may have been what is now regarded as old school, but his kindness to those making their way and his deep knowledge, born of attention to detail, judgement and hard work, should be a lesson for any generation.
Julian David Bonhôte Wilson, racing journalist: born Sidmouth, Devon 21 June 1940; married 1970 Carolyn Michael (divorced 1980; one son), 1981 Alison Ramsay; died 20 April 2014.
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