Peter Bromley

Voice of BBC horse racing
Click to follow

Peter Bromley, racing commentator: born West Kirby, Cheshire 30 April 1929; twice married (three daughters); died Sudbury, Suffolk 3 June 2003.

Peter Bromley was for a generation of radio listeners the voice of BBC horse racing, his powerful and climactic deliveries heard through a long career that encompassed a grand total of 202 Classics. Bromley was in some ways the unseen and unheralded equivalent of Peter O'Sullevan, who was knighted in 1997 for his similarly enduring skills on television.

Bromley's death came within four days of the latest running of the Derby, a race that in tandem with the Grand National provided the perfect framework for the Bromley voice to flourish and emerge. It was after Galileo's victory in the Derby in 2001 that Bromley called time, ending 42 years of studying jockeys' colours, noting any peculiar markings on the runners, then painting a picture of the race across the airwaves. This he did with enthusiasm and panache, for audiences of the 1960s sitting round the radio tuned to the Light Programme, as for the 1990s version with the car radio on Radio Five Live.

As his friend and BBC colleague Julian Wilson recalled, Bromley and his peers had none of the props of today's commentators. Technical support ran to a single black-and-white monitor from which it was impossible to conjure a proper commentary and none of the newspapers carried the colours of the jockeys' silks. Instead, Bromley would spend the evening before a race learning and rehearsing, producing painstaking colour charts for his own use that, in time, would become his trademark. As Bromley's profile grew, winning trainers and owners would be presented with these charts as souvenirs. Ginger McCain has one such framed Bromley racecard from Red Rum's achievements at Aintree.

Peter Bromley was born in 1929 and, after schooling at Cheltenham and Sandhurst, started out in racing as an assistant to the trainer Frank Pullen in Hampshire - he had ridden Pullen's horses at Tweseldown point-to-point course while a lieutenant in the Royal Artillery. Pullen's horses were hardly of the calibre with which Bromley would later familiarise himself at Epsom; the trainer would relate how one of his horses, despite injuries, had managed to win a lowly race, "and when I took the bandages off his legs, they were fainting all round the ring".

Although his ambitions to be a jockey were cut short by falls, Bromley's all-round sporting prowess was unmistakable. He trained with the 1952 British Olympics Games "possibles" with a view to selection for the modern pentathlon. Alas, while his shooting was unimpeachable, his swimming was less so, and he missed out.

Then, when in his mid-twenties, Bromley set out on the journey that would give him such immense pleasure. He began work for the British Racecourse Amplifying and Recording Company, joining a team including Cloudesley Marsham and Michael Seth-Smith that was in at the very birth of racecourse commentaries. The pivotal moment arrived shortly afterwards. In 1961 Bromley was offered a job with the BBC TV racing team, which included O'Sullevan as lead commentator. O'Sullevan says, "Peter Dimmock, who was in charge of outside broadcasts at the time, told him not to go to radio - because Peter O'Sullevan wouldn't go on for ever and he would be next in line." Bromley's decision to stay with radio bore unforeseen dividends, as O'Sullevan did not relinquish the hot seat until the age of 79.

There followed many special days for Bromley: Psidium's 66-1 win in Bromley's first Derby in 1961; Arkle's Gold Cup hat-trick at Cheltenham in 1966; Larkspur's Derby win in 1962, the year seven horses fell; Shergar's record-breaking Derby victory in 1981; and Dancing Brave's outrageous winning dash in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in Paris in 1986. His favourite commentary was for Red Rum's historic third Grand National in 1977, when, he said,

I feared for a dreadful moment that the excited crowd was about to spill out on to the racecourse, and that there would be an incident with the horse swerving to avoid them. I believe that commentary gave me more pleasure than any other, perhaps just because Red Rum was such a special horse whose Aintree record will never be matched.

Accuracy was a Bromley imperative; if standards should happen to drop, the gap was plugged by the drama and force of his delivery, which would reach a natural and often spine-tingling crescendo as the race came to its dénouement. One of his best-remembered descriptions came at Epsom, as he roared: "Shergar wins the Derby and you need a telescope to see the rest."

Wilson compared Bromley with the legendary cricket broadcasters Brian Johnston and Henry Blofeld for his skill in helping listeners to capture the scene. He said:

Peter enjoyed the theatre of racing but he had a great gift, he was very vivid and clear, and conscious of his responsibilities. Television is captioning the picture, rather than painting it as Peter would do.

In later years, listeners might have thought he would be unable to attain the almost angered pitch of voice required in the final furlong. Yet he did, and was granted a spell beyond the usual retirement age in order to reach 200 race commentaries on Classic races.

One personal crusade of Bromley's was his defence of racing coverage on BBC radio, and he was especially angered one year at Epsom when the broadcast began just as the runners for the Derby were going in the stalls. Tennis from Roland Garros had got in the way - this was the type of annoyance Bromley would fight ferociously to eradicate. Just as likely to infuriate were over-eager French technicians on his trips to Paris for the Arc. His preferred gambit was to talk ever louder, in English, until the message was understood.

His army training remained evident right to the later stages of his career. He would always call a meeting of the team prior to a big race and talk through responsibilities, paying particular attention to the correct pronunciation of horses' names. One of the trickiest of all was a horse called Lean Ar Aghaidh, trained in Ireland and set to run in the Grand National. When one of the team questioned Bromley's dubious effort, he snapped back, "Well, that's what we're calling it in England." Those pre-race meetings at Aintree would end with Bromley in military mode exhorting his colleagues to react with alacrity to identify and relay any mishaps over the famous fences. "Remember, chaps," he would say. "As they fall. As they fall."

Away from the turf Bromley was a family man. His first wife, with whom he had a daughter, died in a motor accident, and he later married Jo, with whom he had two more daughters. He loved field sports and shooting, a hobby that grew from his days as an army rifleman and which contributed to his partial deafness.

His retirement, after such a fulfilling career, was cruelly cut short. After living much of his life near the Thames in Berkshire, he had moved to Suffolk on retirement to be with his daughters, granddaughters and beloved gun dogs. Within a year of his final commentary at Royal Ascot in 2001, he fell ill and was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Tony Smurthwaite

Comments