Voice of racing still in full cry after 77 years of National service

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The Independent Online

If Sir Peter O'Sullevan backs the winner of the Grand National on Saturday, he will very possibly establish an enviable record: as the only man in history to pick the winner of the National 77 years apart.

It was in 1928, aged 10, that he first experienced the thrill of a successful punt on the world's greatest steeplechase, having astutely wagered sixpence each-way on the 100-1 shot Tipperary Tim. Since the legalisation of betting shops was more than three decades away, he placed his bet with the local butcher.

"I remember it clearly," he says. "The shop with its sawdust floor and the butcher with his straw hat. I was brought up by my grandparents near Reigate in Surrey because my mother and father had discovered early in their marriage that they were incompatible, so I became a refugee from Ireland when I was about five or six. My grandmother hunted, and her groom, the chauffeur and other members of staff would all have their bets. I was the runner. I would hand the butcher the slips, which he would look at and say, discreetly, 'the order will be taken care of, young man'."

His bet this year will be made without recourse to the local butcher, but as for where it will go, O'Sullevan remains undecided.

"I backed a horse last year I thought was a little unlucky, Hedgehunter, so I will be very tempted to have a bit on him. I have several allegiances. J P [McManus] is a very good pal of mine; I would love to see J P win a National. And he has several hopes this year - Spot Thedifference, First Gold, and Clan Royal, who ran a marvellous race last year.

"I must say it looks a very interesting National. It always is, of course, but even when one is no longer writing or concerned with stories, there are so many ingredients this year, of which one of the principal ones is Carrie Ford and Forest Gunner. He's a bit of a freak, really. He has plenty of courage, but then most of them do. You see a different type of animal now in the National. Quite a few are ex-Flat racehorses, not animals which have grown up on Irish limestone soil who haven't seen a bridle until they are five or six. These are much more fragile, but happily the race is not as daunting as it was.

"In 1961 the fences were rounded off, and dressed with spruce and fir. They used to be black birch. Oh, they were forbidding. But it is still a huge challenge. I suppose one of the ways I justify the National to myself is that if a horse doesn't want to compete he pulls up."

It is a second or two before I realise that O'Sullevan has paused in anticipation of my next question, so transported am I by the familiar deep, mellifluous tones. I remember once asking Richie Benaud, himself top of many people's list of favourite commentators, who his own favourite was, and without hesitation he plumped for O'Sullevan. It wasn't just the skill of calling the horses, said Benaud, it was the marvellous voice as well. So I am delighted to report that the voice is unimpaired and that, at 87, the rest of him seems remarkably robust, too.

As dapper as ever, he greets me at the door of his flat, near Sloane Square, and leads me through to a sitting-room. Every single wall, I notice, is festooned with paintings of racehorses. They include several of his own, notably Attivo, winner of the 1974 Triumph Hurdle, some of whose thrilling victories O'Sullevan called himself, while offering not a whit of partisanship up to and including the moment he said "owned by Mr Peter O'Sullevan..."

I tell him that it is more than 30 years since I met him. I was 11, and my late father, racing nut and sometime bookmaker, had taken me to Haydock, where O'Sullevan signed my autograph book "best wishes, Peter O'Sullevan and Attivo". At the same age, coincidentally, O'Sullevan had himself been introduced to Lord Beaverbrook, the newspaper magnate, at Lingfield.

"He asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up, and opportunistically I said I was going to be racing correspondent for the Sunday Express. I thought it would be better to work one day a week than six; I woke up to that quite early. I remember he gave me a piece of brown paper, a 10 shilling note, and to show what a sensible punter I was in those early years I wrote at the top of my race card, 'plus 10 shillings', and never had a bet."

O'Sullevan got his prediction slightly wrong, becoming racing correspondent for the Daily Express for 36 years, and of course the BBC's voice of racing. It is seven years now since the great man hung up the microphone, although not, heaven forbid, his binoculars. Incidentally, the expression "great man" is bandied about a little too readily in relation to both broadcasting and sport. But O'Sullevan really does qualify. In 1999 he set up the Sir Peter O'Sullevan Charitable Trust, which has since distributed hundreds of thousands of pounds to animal-welfare charities. His passion for the well-being of horses is why he talks about having to "justify" the National to himself; indeed it is a little ironic, I venture, that the race with which he is most closely associated is the race still castigated by animal-rights protesters.

"Absolutely," he says. "But great strides have been made. For a long time I campaigned for the modification of Becher's [Brook]. It was a very unfair hazard, I thought. When a horse took off he didn't realise that the ground had been taken away from him on the landing side. And to compound this, there was a ditch on the landing side which I gather was very unfavourably thought of by the pilots because, when people walked the course, by the time they got to Becher's they were ready for a leak, you know, and this was the ideal place. So when they did fall there, they fell into a sewer."

I fancy that, behind his trademark tinted glasses, O'Sullevan's eyes are twinkling. "But that's a slight irrelevance," he continues. "What offended me was that horses that fell into the ditch were dragged out in the most undignified and often painful manner. So I pressed for change, but I needed an ally. I always feel that if you campaign too loudly as an individual you're liable to be thought of as a crank. So I drafted in a chum of mine, John Oaksey."

Oaksey and O'Sullevan made a formidable pairing, but there was powerful opposition to change. Shortly after O'Sullevan was elected to the Jockey Club, he asserted at a meeting that the National would die on its feet if the fences, and particularly Becher's, were not made fairer. Nearby, Lord Derby, that bastion of the racing establishment, somewhat unequivocally growled "over my dead body".

Still, it came to pass, as did the limiting of the field to 40 runners. "In 1929, you know, there were 66 runners. Sixty-six! I'm glad I wasn't doing the commentary. The first broadcast I listened to was in 1927, and that decided me, it confirmed my desire to operate in that sphere. The commentator then was the correspondent of the Sporting Life, Meyrick Good, who used to stand in Mr Topham's box at Aintree with the king on his right." A basso profundo chuckle. "Although he was broadcasting to the nation, he still had the monarch at his shoulder."

O'Sullevan first went to Aintree himself in 1938, and has since become as much of a fixture at the National as the winning-post.

"But for the first time this year I was thinking of not going, you know. I was very spoilt during the sponsorship of Martell. They come and collect you at some unearthly hour, take you to the station, put you on the Orient Express where you have a champagne breakfast, then you are met at Aintree, delivered to a suite where Albert Roux cooks lunch, then you do your money or whatever, get back on the train and eat and drink all the way back to London. This year I had decided to take a raincheck, but the new sponsor, John Smith's, have very kindly offered to send a car."

I ask O'Sullevan whether the great steeplechase, and racing generally, has lost any of its lustre for him.

"None at all," he says. "It's absolutely irresistible. Irresistible! But I'll tell you a thing that worries me, particularly about the National, which goes to something like 80 [television] territories.

"For a long time I was worried about excessive use of the whip, which amounted at times to abuse. It was very unappealing and generally unproductive, and unsuccessful rules were introduced, for example allowing a jock only to hit a horse 10 times.

"You can't change things by proclamation, you've got to change attitudes. And attitudes have been changed. Now, shock-absorbing whips are mandatory, so when you see a horse getting what looks like a right belting, it is being hit by a shock-absorbent whip of prescribed length and density. If you were to hold out your hand and I were to give you a belt, you wouldn't feel pain, but you would feel the rush of urgency, the noise, the smack. And that's part of the motivation.

"You know, one of my happiest racing experiences occurred at Cheltenham just a few weeks ago, when an RSPCA inspector who has been immensely helpful in this campaign, came to me and said that as far as it could be established, only one horse had been marked this year. Horses used to be marked after every race! You'd see jocks coming in, and old ladies saying 'isn't it sweet, he's giving the horse a nice pat on its rump', when what he was doing was trying to rub out the evidence of his semi-butchery.

"That has changed, and this week I've been saying to the Jockey Club, 'for God's sake get the message across during a week like this, when racing is centre stage'. It's vital people know that horses are not being abused."

So concerned is O'Sullevan with the image of racing that I can't resist asking himself what he thinks of his absolute antithesis, Channel 4's John McCririck. After all, if the game has changed in many positive ways, some might also point out a negative: that the voice of racing used to be the elegant O'Sullevan, and now the face of racing is the anything-but-elegant McCririck.

"Well, I think he's made an enormous success of buffoonery, an absolute triumph. There are views he expresses that I disagree with vehemently, but as a person he is nothing like as bad as he makes himself out to be. I have always found him very agreeable, and I'm really sorry he went into that programme [Celebrity Big Brother]. He represented himself so appallingly."

I suppose O'Sullevan is used to being asked about McCririck, but in this week of weeks there is another question he can expect to be asked by every second person he encounters: as a man who recalls every Grand National since 1927, which loom largest in the memory?

"Well, I remember the first televised National in 1960 very well. It was a great pleasure calling home Merryman II [not least because he'd backed it heavily himself although, as ever, he kept his partiality to himself]. And Red Rum, of course. But perhaps the most emotional would have to be when Bob Champion won on Aldaniti. Here was a man who'd conquered cancer, on a horse who'd broken down so badly that he wasn't expected to run again. And there he was winning the National from a 45-year-old amateur, John Thorne, riding his own mare Spartan Missile.

"The picture eternally in my mind is the embrace between the two of them afterwards. I have no doubt that John Thorne was as pleased for Bob Champion as he would have been for himself, and that seemed to me to represent the spirit of the race."

With that, O'Sullevan leads me to the front door, although not before giving me his autograph again, in the form of a signed copy of his most recent book, Peter O'Sullevan's Horse Racing Heroes (Highdown, £20).

"I'd be very grateful if you'd give it a mention," he says. How could I not?