Man to shout the odds; PROFILE: John McCririck

Beyond the TV histrionics lies a skilled operator. Stan Hey assesses the punters' champion
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SATURDAY'S Vodafone Derby will be the first occasion in 42 years that Britain's premier flat race will have been staged at a time when its audience - both at the track and at home watching television - is conspicuously free to enjoy it. Even in 1953, it was not a desire to accommodate the masses but the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II that forced its switch from the traditional Wednesday to the more accessible Saturday.

So for many people watching the race will be a first-time experience, and those who will sit down with Channel 4's live coverage had better be prepared for what might be called "The Big Mac Experience". John McCririck - his hefty figure justifies the prefix - is the programme's betting reporter and has become, through his antics, his clothes and his outspoken opinions, one of the liveliest and most popular personalities on television.

For those who have not seen him in action, a preparatory guide is now offered. First: Appearance - although McCririck will be formally attired for Derby Day in top hat, brocade waistcoat and tails, his prodigious side-whiskers, akin to two squirrels ascending either side of a tree-trunk, will be on view, as will the fistfuls of horseshoe rings that are among his other trade marks.

On most racing days, however, he can look like a man who has been coated in super-glue then dunked in the reject clothes box at Oxfam. The lilac double-breasted suit with tweed cape, the deer-stalker, the knitted hat with the Channel 4 logo, the Old Harrovian blazer and boater, the pith-helmet and African fly-whisk all feature in his wardrobe throughout the four seasons of British racing.

Next is the Voice - it is an audacious, urgent, "stop dozing in the armchair!" bellow, listing the latest starting prices of the horses, "the stats" for the race coming up, or the febrile rumours in the betting ring. McCririck is also an expert practitioner in two of the ancient arts of bookmaking, the hand-signs and the slang. So if a horse he mentions happens to stand at odds of 6-4, the back of his right-hand will rise by reflex to the left-side of his face while he shouts "Ear 'ole!" at the camera.

Even in relaxed conversation McCririck's limbs will spasm into the required configuration if odds are mentioned. One imagines that a good practical joke to play would be to shout "carpet" (3-1) while he was shaving, or bringing a tray of drinks back from a bar. McCririck may jib at this on the basis that, as a professed male chauvinist, he would almost certainly get his wife, Jenny - whom he calls "The Booby" - to perform both tasks.

But to present John McCririck merely as an entertaining and eccentric television performer is to do him an injustice. In the first instance, the information he conveys is not only vital to the armchair punter waiting for some sign of wisdom about his bet, it is also an accurate ticker-tape of the movement of money through the betting ring, and all that this implies.

At Doncaster in 1990 a horse called Bravefoot, initially installed as favourite and attracting some hefty bets, suddenly began to drift alarmingly in the market. "Something smells!" McCririck warned viewers, and after Bravefoot had flopped it was later found to have been a rare case of a horse being "stopped" by doping.

Occasionally, McCririck will get it wrong, asserting that a horse "can't win" just because there is no money for it, or dismissing the chances of "a rag" (an outsider), only to see his worst fears come true. The sincere, but pantomimic gestures of contrition when this happens are the stuff of Greek tragedy.

But behind all the histrionic performance and self-mockery lies a shrewd and passionate supporter of horse-racing and its hand-maiden, betting. This is a destiny that must have seemed unlikely given his stolid, thoroughly middle-class background. He was born in Surbiton, the only child of parents who soon moved to the Channel Islands to develop property. There was little history of betting in the family but a memory of a trip to Epsom in 1951 - "I was in my pram at the time," he jokes - seems to have triggered a "Rosebud" moment.

By the time he was sent to Harrow - McCririck is coy about his precise age, but his adolescent passion for Newcastle United could only have been stimulated by their FA Cup wins of the early 1950s - the momentary enthusiasm had become a defining characteristic and, almost certainly, a defence mechanism against richer, more distinguished pupils. As all public schoolboys learn, the way to survive is to be useful at something, for the fate of "the grey man", or "the fat boy", is truly beastly otherwise.

Julian Wilson, the BBC's suave racing presenter, was also at Harrow at the time and has said of McCririck - perhaps impishly - that "he was greatly disapproved of and generally regarded as a disgrace". McCririck's route to acceptance was to become a bookmaker.

"There were 300 runners in the cross-country one year and I offered even- money on the captain of athletics. But Wilson had a fiver on him, and the boy who should really have been a 2-5 chance won in a canter," McCririck recalls of his first foray into bookmaking.

A poor crop of O-levels - three - left McCririck with few career options, but after an unsuccessful stint as a trainee at the Dorchester hotel his interest in racing and betting led him first to work for a one-armed street bookie called Wingy before the opening of betting shops in 1961 offered new opportunities.

"I knew it was going to be the future," McCririck says, "but I also knew I just didn't have the brains to make a business out of it." Instead he spent time clerking for a bookmaking firm, working as a private handicapper and then edging his way into both racing journalism and television.

Viewers of a certain age may remember first seeing McCririck, with whiskers and dark glasses, over David Coleman's shoulder on Grandstand as he edited racing copy and results. A chance to become an instant star when Peter O'Sullevan's commentary from a chase at Ascot was lost ended in disaster as McCririck could not get to grips with the four runners in his stand- in commentary.

Nevertheless, McCririck's acute insights into the world of betting generated substantial progress on the Sporting Life between 1972 and 1984, winning him two high- profile British Press awards. Despite his own protestations about a lack of talent, McCririck has written some truly Runyonesque pieces about the calamities and joys of betting and bookmaking.

In 1979 he was the British Press Campaigning Journalist of the Year after a sustained investigation had revealed that certain Tote officials had transmitted money into betting pools after races had been run in order to reduce the pay-outs. Eventually a judicial inquiry investigated McCririck's findings and accepted that malpractice had taken place.

McCririck was also a vital go- between for the Jockey Club when the negotiations to save Aintree took place with its owner, Bill Davies. Unhappily, his time at the Sporting Life ended with dismissal, although he later won substantial libel damages from the Daily Star when it made allegations about the reasons for the sacking. None of this prevented his recruitment to Channel 4 in 1983, nor the establishment of his crusading persona.

Whether it is attacking trainers for their horses' being "non-triers", or berating bookies for shaving the odds, or even chiding his Channel 4 colleague Jim McGrath for over-rating Celtic Swing in the Timeform race- card of last month's 2,000 Guineas, he is never afraid to express an opinion.

This has led to his being hailed by many of Channel 4 racing's viewers as "The Punters' Champion", a sort of Don Quixote of racing aiming his lance at any bastions of vested interest without fear. But in truth idealism and a multi- million-pound gambling industry do not go together. So McCririck is more of a Sancho Panza.

His detractors will cite his occasional illiberal rants and exhibitionist tendencies as turn-offs, but for the millions of punters who will tune in on Saturday to his report from the front-line of Derby Day betting, he is the man who, having spent years in the trenches himself, truly knows the depths of their suffering. "I'm just the pub bore with a microphone," he says modestly. But as someone who has lived through the days of street- corner bookies to see gambling become part of the national fabric, he is also a curator of a key part of our social history. So despite the clothes and arm-waving, what you get with John McCririck is more than what you see.