Racing: A Fyne farewell for Sir Peter

Stan Hey sees a racing legend make a winning start to his retirement: 'At the fourth, it's Suny Bay - oh, he pitched there! Oh, he very nearly went! Oh, it was a fantastic recovery, that, by Graham Bradley. He was absolutely gone, but he's back into it all right now'
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The Independent Online
All eyes were on Suny Bay in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury yesterday, but all ears were firmly cocked to the final commentary of Sir Peter O'Sullevan as it was broadcast to a packed crowd. O'Sullevan's farewell, after half a century in broadcasting, proved an ideal emotional pairing with a race which confirmed the outstanding promise of Suny Bay, as the past merged seamlessly with the future.

No sooner had O'Sullevan hung up his microphone and tilted down his naval binoculars for the last time than his own horse Sounds Fyne (an appropriate name!) romped home in the following race to complete a most memorable day for the king of British Sports broadcasters.

Having been garlanded with assorted trophies and a distillery's worth of bottles over the past few weeks, this was the best prize of all for O'Sullevan. It was also a clear indication that, now he has more time on his hands, the maestro will be able to turn his attentions to one of his most favourites pursuits, relieving the bookmakers of their profits.

Indeed the first sighting of O'Sullevan on the course yesterday was of him in deep conversation with a representative of Ladbrokes. It is not thought that they were discussing train timetables. Sir Peter's last day duties included a live link-up with Irish television which, like Newbury, had sponsored a race named in his honour. And then it was off high up on the bridge to take the helm.

For those whose racing memories stretched back to childhood, the voice of Peter O'Sullevan is as familiar as a favourite uncle's and contains the same valued elements of warmth and wisdom. In our house it was almost like he lived next door, so regularly were his brushed velvet tones heard in the living-room. When that same voice, marinaded by the years, boomed out across the Berkshire course at 2.25pm it was impossible not to mark out one's life with the furlong poles of his 14,000 commentaries.

And to judge by the reception he was given - a rising roar of acclamation and thunderous applause - as he presented the Hennessy Trophy in a seething unsaddling enclosure, thousands of racegoers plainly feel likewise. The only hiccup occurred when his interview microphone proved to be dead - the BBC can't have finished with him that brutally, surely? And when a large posse of jockeys gathered it provoked the thought that the little imps might try and give O'Sullevan the bumps, but they had nothing more dangerous than a magnum of champagne to present to him.

The last commentary had been delivered by then and it was noticeable that the morning's tautness in O'Sullevan's face, a fair indication of the intense preparation and attendant nervousness which have always been the preliminaries to his race-calling, had ebbed away to be replaced by a wide smile of relief.

His commentary, so amplified it could probably have been heard in the Solent, proved as always to be a thrillingly accurate guide to the race's narrative. His sudden yell of alarm when Suny Bay's nostrils hit the turf on the first circuit, was a precise impersonation of those thousands who had backed the horse, underlying his lasting infinity with, first, the horse's welfare, then that of the punters.

As the race unwound with all but one of the 14 runners in contention, O'Sullevan gradually upped the register of his voice, intuitively appreciating the unfolding drama of the race. But then that has always been his particular skill matching the tone to the occasion before him, unlike the fake hysteria merchants who pass off as sports commentators today.

Suny Bay's sustained recovery and eventual surge into a winning lead, therefore, had the perfect soundtrack, something that the winning owners will no doubt treasure in the years to come as much as the trophy itself.

O'Sullevan, overdoing the modesty as usual, said after the presentations: "I am very touched by the reception for a very ordinary commentator just because he lived so long." But then, typically, his last broadcast words had spurned all inclination towards self-gratification or elegy: "The starting prices on the 41st Hennessy Gold Cup are as follows..."

With that, The Voice disappeared into the BBC's sporting archives for good. But those of us who follow the horses will still hear him in our heads wherever we go racing.