John McCririck, the celebrated racing pundit, is seeking £3m in age-discrimination damages to cover the "public humiliation" he suffered after being ditched by Channel 4.
McCririck, 72, was one of several long-standing presenters dropped after the channel won exclusive rights to terrestrial coverage of racing from 1 January. The new team, headed by Clare Balding, has a conspicuous accent on youth.
Now the septuagenarian, known to viewers for his eccentric wardrobe and coiffure, has announced "watershed" legal proceedings against Channel 4 and their new production company IMG Sports Media, saying he was a victim of age prejudice.
In a statement released today, he said: "After 29 years with Channel 4 Racing, on a rolling annual contract, I have been sacked without any consultation or cogent explanation. I am 72. For loss of future earnings; unfair, career-damaging, public humiliation; stress; and mental anguish, I will be seeking £500,000.
"Ageism is illegal. For tens of thousands of employees it has become the feared scourge of our society. This litigation should prove to be a watershed. There's no upper limit to the amount of damages employment tribunals can award under the Equality Act 2010. I am seeking a further exemplary, punitive £2.5m, part of which will be donated to charitable organisations helping to prevent negative prejudice in the workplace."
McCririck, an Old Harrovian and failed bookmaker, was incensed in October when advised that he had not made the cut for the expanded Channel 4 portfolio, which will now include the Grand National and Royal Ascot.
Pronouncing himself "the face of racing", alongside Frankie Dettori and now Balding, he stressed that racing was a sport for "all ages and classes of society" – and noted that only one of the 13 names on the roster announced that day was aged over 50.
Some may be uncomfortable with the notion that a man whose attitude to women can be so overtly antediluvian should now seem to appoint himself a guardian against discrimination. But McCririck's provocative style has always seemed calculated, affording him a niche in celebrity culture. He transcended the world of betting to make lucrative appearances on Celebrity Big Brother and Wife Swap.
The IMG makeover did shed a number of men in, or past, middle age. Like McCririck, the 62-year-old Derek Thompson tended to divide opinion but had an undeniably popular touch; while few on the new team can so far aspire to Alastair Down's seasoned blend of intelligence and levity. Another to go was Mike Cattermole, no less smooth for the greying of his hair.
The consequences of McCririck's legal action promise to be colourful, with Channel 4 quick to reject his claims.
"We are grateful to John McCririck for his contribution towards the success of Channel 4 Racing over many years," said a spokeswoman for the broadcaster. "However, we reject the suggestion that discrimination on the basis of age played any part in the decision not to renew his freelance contract and we will be vigorously defending this claim."
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