John McCririck: The mutton chop monster who metamorphoses into Mr Kindness
Monday 24 January 2005
John McCririck eating his breakfast, as Germaine Greer and Brigitte Nielsen might now testify, is not a sight for the faint-hearted. It is just a few days after his eviction from
Celebrity Big Brother and McCririck has kindly agreed to meet me at The Wolseley, a smart Viennese-style cafe on London's Piccadilly. He arrives bejewelled and punctual at 8am, not wearing his deerstalker, alas, but a floppy blue beanie hat. He orders a bowl of porridge with cream, followed by fried eggs, bacon, sausages and white bread, not toasted. Over the course of the subsequent two hours he also drinks two Einspanner coffees, both topped with an Austrian alp of whipped cream. Into these he pops a couple of sugar-substitute sweeteners, which seems, if he will forgive me, rather like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.
John McCririck eating his breakfast, as Germaine Greer and Brigitte Nielsen might now testify, is not a sight for the faint-hearted. It is just a few days after his eviction from Celebrity Big Brother and McCririck has kindly agreed to meet me at The Wolseley, a smart Viennese-style cafe on London's Piccadilly. He arrives bejewelled and punctual at 8am, not wearing his deerstalker, alas, but a floppy blue beanie hat. He orders a bowl of porridge with cream, followed by fried eggs, bacon, sausages and white bread, not toasted. Over the course of the subsequent two hours he also drinks two Einspanner coffees, both topped with an Austrian alp of whipped cream. Into these he pops a couple of sugar-substitute sweeteners, which seems, if he will forgive me, rather like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.
What I know he will not forgive me for is the additional observation that he is a hugely convivial and engaging breakfast companion. I would hesitate to suggest that the monster we saw on Celebrity Big Brother is entirely a construct; he's a sexist, right-wing dinosaur outside the Big Brother house as well as in. But he is witty and articulate with it, and there are also clear signs that beneath it all there beats the heart of a fundamentally kind man. And if that doesn't provoke a writ from him, nothing will.
We talk first about Celebrity Big Brother. What on earth made him do it?
"Purely the money," he says. "It was a fair bit of wedge, and much needed, by the way. So it was a strategy fulfilled, and it's not often you do that in life. The only thing that went wrong was that I didn't expect to get through the first round, but then they parachuted in that ghastly Stallone woman, who was even more appalling than me. Otherwise it all went to plan. The British public loathed me, as I knew they would, and quite right too. I'm a fat, public-school educated, right-wing journalist, four of the most hated groups in the country. I told the producers from the start that I was only in it for the money. I didn't want to win. I was the archetypal non-trier. Had it been a horse race the stewards would have called me in for not trying."
His Big Brother housemates are having a private reunion tomorrow evening, which he finds bewildering.
"Those morons, can you believe it? They want to spend even more time together. Lunatics. Apart from Germaine [Greer] the only one I had any time for was Lisa [I'Anson]. She used the c-word on me and had the balls to sort me out. But she didn't stimulate me, brain-wise. The only one who did was Germaine. I've never changed my mind about someone so quickly. My God, the depth of her knowledge. When she left I said, 'For God's sake get her back. Give her a rainforest, whatever it takes'. Without her I knew I would vegetate. The others had absolutely nothing of interest to say."
The same charge cannot be levelled at McCririck; he has scarcely anything to say that isn't of interest. Moving on to his beloved racing, he remarks disingenuously that if he were a betting man, he would consider the odds to be against Channel 4 still covering racing in 2006. There is plenty of speculation among racing folk that the turf's days on terrestrial telly may be numbered, but you have to take notice when one of Channel 4's own racing team predicts its demise.
Elsewhere in the world, racing pays to be on mainstream television, and McCririck thinks it may be asked to do the same here. "Imagine if Sky turned round to football and said, 'We're not paying you, you've got to pay us'. That could happen to racing. Already Channel 4 used to do 100 days a year, now it's down to 85. Racing is not on network television by divine right. Channel 4 are commercially minded and a black-and-white film will get them a 50 per cent bigger audience. It's a very hard call."
It is entirely right and proper, he adds, that sport should prostrate itself before television. "In America, if television wants something -- a microphone here or a camera there - it gets it. And quite right. Here, television is still regarded as a necessary evil. I was a sub-editor on Grandstand for 10 years and I remember thinking what absolute madness it was that Five Nations rugby matches were played at the same time, instead of staggering them for television.
"But television needs to learn that the event is all. When ITV got the World Cup everyone said, 'Oh my God, without Bill McLaren it won't be the same'. Bill McLaren, the voice of rugby, dancing in the streets of Lossiemouth and all that. Within two minutes of the first game nobody cared. They want the game! Commentators don't matter, the event is what matters. I remember listening to Jonathan Agnew moaning and wailing when Channel 4 got the cricket. 'There'll be commercial breaks between overs,' he said, 'nobody will know what's going on'. And what happened? The coverage was fantastic, in fact I resent the years I spent watching cricket on the BBC. Jim Laker was a wonderful spin bowler but his voice was an absolute killer. Thank goodness the BBC lost its virtual monopoly on sport. Thank goodness."
On the other hand, the BBC might be racing's only hope of terrestrial TV coverage if Channel 4 do pull the plug. McCririck, meanwhile, would still have his job with the dedicated racing channel At The Races, and racing would continue to be blessed with his robust opinions. He is vehement, for example, on the subject of the whip.
"You can't hit your cat, your dog, you can't even hit your wife," he thunders. "So why can you hit a racehorse? They say The Minstrel wouldn't have won the Derby without the whip, and I say, 'so what?' It is a disgusting situation where, to prove he's trying, a jockey hits a horse. There will be a court case, and it will be stopped. The whip will be banned. I would keep it for steerage purposes, but that's all. Because beating animals in the name of sport is totally unacceptable. I agree that it helps the horse to go faster, but I can think of another way: put electrodes on his private parts. Would anyone accept that?"
McCririck breaks off to answer his mobile phone, which is ringing from somewhere inside the folds of his huge coat. "I'm coming! I'm coming!" he bellows at the elusive phone. Those heads that haven't already turned our way, do so now. Breakfast with McCririck is not for those who wish to avoid attention.
"We have made progress," he eventually continues, taking up the whip issue again. "It was terrible at Cheltenham 25 years ago, those Irish jockeys thrashing their horses up the hill. But there is still a long way to go. The problem is that you can thrash a horse and still win the race; the penalties come later. One way to change that would be instant disqualification. After all, if you get a chap out with a no-ball in cricket, it doesn't count. In football if you score a goal and it's offside, it doesn't count. If you whip a racehorse 20 times and win the race it should not count. Then it would stop. And jockeys could show us what horsemen they are."
What else would McCririck change if - and here's an image to drive more than a few people to drink - he were appointed all-powerful grand panjandrum of racing?
"I would never have fewer than six runners. Never. If the Derby can't find six runners then don't run the Derby. The public has to be reassured that racing is doing something [to fight corruption] and that would be a start. Kenyon Confronts, Panorama, dawn swoops, Graham Bradley ... racing cannot go on absorbing all that. The whole problem is proving corruption. I certainly don't believe that in 10,000 races a year, every horse is trying its best in every race, but it is a leap from there to actually fixing races. Yet every horse should try. Why are Godolphin so popular? Because their horses run on their merits; whether it's a 100-1 chance or an evens favourite, they're both trying just as hard. [Trainer] Mark Johnston even uses the slogan 'always trying'. The very fact that he has to reflects badly on the game."
A fleeting pause, for breath and a huge mouthful of porridge. "I really smashed into [Kieren] Fallon [for his infamous ride on Ballinger Ridge at Lingfield] because the champion jockey had clearly not given the horse a champion ride, and I believe there should be an automatic six-month ban for anyone who drops their hands and loses a race. But I didn't think he was guilty of more than showboating. Then, astonishingly, we heard that there had been unusual betting patterns. Yet no corruption was proven.
"Anyone who says there is corruption in racing must name the horse, name the race, and then produce £750,000 to mount a legal case. But to think that there is no corruption in racing is absolutely absurd."
When Fallon was invited on to Channel 4's The Morning Line following the Ballinger Ridge business, he declined. "Not if that fat fucker is there," he said. Just as McCririck never equivocates, nor does he attract equivocation. But even those who loathe him acknowledge that he knows his subject, and has done since boyhood, when he and his fellow Harrovian Julian Wilson set themselves up as school bookmakers.
After Harrow he became a bookie's runner, and remembers 1 May 1961 - the day betting shops came into being - as the greatest day of his life. He even remembers the first winner that day: Black Nanny at Nottingham, for Jim Joel.
"And I clearly recall thinking that betting shops were the future, and that if I had the entrepreneurial skills I would open a chain of them and become a multimillionaire, but that, not having those skills, I would look back years later and not chastise myself."
Far from profiting from the betting industry, McCririck unashamedly concedes that he has had a string of punting disasters. "Failed bookie, failed punter, failed journalist," is his standard line in self-deprecation, although he is happy to recall his successes, represented not least by the 1993 2,000 Guineas and Zafonic.
"He came from last to first and I remain convinced that on that one day, no miler on earth, past or present, could have held him. That horse, that day, was invincible. But obviously I'm biased. I'd backed him at 8-1 the previous September, and I've never known a horse race so polarise people. There were those who'd backed it, and those who hadn't but knew I had, and wanted it to lose just to stick it up me."
McCririck takes a slurp of Einspanner coffee, giving him a whipped cream moustache to go with his mutton chop whiskers. I ask him, finally, who he might choose to ride for his life? "On the Flat, Frankie [Dettori]," he says. "He's a world-class rider. Lester Piggott was obviously a fantastic jockey but Frankie always tries and Lester ... well, you've got to be careful what you say here ... certainly Lester tried when it mattered but I disapproved of the way he won, with brute force and the whip. George Moore was a great Australian jockey who came over in the 1960s. He had such beautiful hands, exquisite to watch. Over jumps, John Francome was the same. The intuitive riding sense he had. Remarkable."
On that rhapsodic note, McCririck steps out on to Piccadilly, although not before handing me a copy of his 1991 book John McCririck's World of Betting. It is dedicated to his long-suffering wife, for whom, as Celebrity Big Brother viewers now know along with all racing fans, he has a nickname.
"To the Booby, so lucky to have hooked her wonderful boy out of the great fishtank of life".
Lucky? You have to say the jury's still out.
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