John McCririck: Racing uncertainty

The man's obsessed with being noticed. Silly hat, silly clothes, silly ideas and a big mouth to boot, as those who attended Robin Cook's funeral found. But he is far from being just a spoilt child
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The Independent Online

On known form, many would say, the answer is simple. This was just one more example of attention-craving by a man who must hog the spotlight and who does not know when to stop. For others who know him better it is more complicated. He saw a friend slighted and discretion is foreign to his nature.

McCririck not only lacks taste, he celebrates his lack of taste. The hideous furry headgear, the Lusitania cigars, the mutton-chop whiskers, the bling-bling jewellery, the blanket-like cloaks and shoestring ties, the manic waving of his arms in tick-tack code from a bygone age as he draws a circle of gawpers around him on the racecourse suggest a man who has to pull the focus to himself.

No showman ever lost money, they say, underestimating the taste of the viewers. Excess has become the Big Mac trademark and there is nothing accidental about it. It has become a highly profitable trademark, helping to line the capacious pockets of the one-time waiter and, by his own admission, failed bookmaker. McCririck betting guides and racing anthologies roll off the presses. There is a McCririck board game. No racing controversy moves from the sports pages to the front pages without Big Mac being invited to comment.

Some in the racing world groan and recall the verdict on the former US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles: "There is never any world situation so bad that a few well-chosen words from John Foster Dulles cannot make it a thousand times worse." Others note the shrewdness behind the flamboyance and admire McCririck's ability to strip a subject down to essentials.

For the most part racing adopts a cheery ambivalence about the big man's antics. Many who cringe at his showmanship acknowledge there are few doughtier battlers for ordinary punters, whether that has meant taking on the bookmakers, the Jockey Club or the razor-sharp mind of the former British Horseracing Board chairman Peter Savill. Leaving Harrow with three O-levels, McCririck did a stint as a trainee at the Dorchester and then worked for a bookie. He acknowledges he didn't have the brains to make a business out of bookmaking, but, having cut his teeth on 10 years with Grandstand, he had a sufficiently inquiring mind as a journalist to uncover some genuine scandals while at the Sporting Life, for which he won awards. His fortunes dipped in the early Eighties when he left the Life and sued (successfully) the Daily Star for a story about his gambling debts. In interviews, he deflects questions on how much gambling might have cost him.

Some racing commentators rarely criticise jockeys or trainers for conceiving or employing the wrong tactics. McCririck calls the racing press "the most supine journalists in the world" and wades in with full-frontal comment on jockeys' and trainers' shortcomings, often demanding that the authorities act against the individuals concerned.

The more serious side of McCririck shows, for example, in his recitations of racing history and statistics or his campaigning against the use of the whip. He argues that you cannot beat your wife or child so why should jockeys be allowed to beat horses to encourage them to greater effort? He objects to the euphemistic language used to describe the act of whipping on a racehorse: "giving him a reminder" or "waking her up". McCririck is an active supporter of charities such as the Greatwood home for retired racehorses.

Ah yes, say the critics, but what about the man's sheer vulgarity, his notorious appearance on Celebrity Big Brother when he apparently relished walking about in his saggy underpants, picking his nose and eating the excavations ("mine is particularly tasty") and sulking because he did not get the Diet Coke he had been promised? What about the treatment of his long-suffering wife Jenny and his Neanderthal views on women?

"Her Indoors" has always been fair game for comedians. But even in caricature few are as rude publicly about their other half as McCririck. His wife Jenny fetches the papers early, drives him to the races and compensates for his technophobia. Yet he calls her The Booby, explaining: "The booby is a South American bird which is stupid and pathetically easy to catch. It goes along South American runways and aircraft mow it down. Oh, and it squawks a lot - that sums up the booby." His advice is, "Always marry below you. Never marry an attractive woman. Women who are not attractive are far better. They look after their men. But The Booby is quite attractive, actually. She had a decent chest in her time."

He cannot stand make-up on women, insists that men are interested only in those with large breasts and inveighs against feminism. He addresses Tanya Stevenson, who works with him on Channel 4 Racing, as "Female".

Much of this is ludicrous but it has all become part of McCririck Enterprises. As for his treatment of The Booby, Jenny McCririck is an intelligent and interesting woman, not a dependent wallflower. If she chooses to play along with the McCririck persona (and she does make those hats) then that is her business. Every marriage contains some role-playing.

Fellow racing commentator Julian Wilson, another Harrovian and the Smooth Man to McCririck's Hairy Man, says McCririck's whole life is an act, and he is probably right. People who spend much of their lives in the public eye do find that the public persona takes over. I suspect that much of the time McCririck does not know whether he is performing or being himself. Listen to him on politics and he makes General Pinochet sound like a Lib Dem. But catch him in the right mood and he will admit, "I'm a pub bore with a microphone." Meet him dining at the Wolseley or the Ivy and occasionally you can catch a quieter McCririck.

One obvious question is how he ever came to be a friend of Robin Cook, a man with his heart well left of centre. As another part-time interloper in racing from the political world it does not surprise me. Big Mac was one of the first to offer me a welcome to the racecourse press rooms. He is genuinely interested in politics, ready to debate if you can penetrate the monologue, but swiftly dismissive of the phoney. He recognised Robin's genuine love for the game and I can see how he steamed himself up about the absent Prime Minister. But did it help anyone but him to let off the steam? The trouble with Big Mac is he has no lid. He might have left it until after the funeral.

Like Robin Cook, I enjoy McCririck's company and I often learn from it. But he can also be something of a spoilt child, failing to appreciate what the effect of his actions on others might be. When our children were small and had got themselves in a state we gave them a way out by letting them turn around three times in a corner and come out fresh to face the world. Perhaps The Booby had better do something similar to John McCririck before the caricature takes over completely.

Robin Oakley is European political editor for CNN and turf columnist for 'The Spectator'