Racing: Flag goes up for the knight's final day

Sean Magee sets emotional scene as the Voice of Racing prepares to bow out
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The Independent Online
Envy those Newbury racegoers on Saturday with eyes in the back of their head. For the only place to experience the full flavour of Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup day 1997 will be a small patch of the lawn in front of the grandstand which commands a view, not only of the big race itself, but simultaneously of the eyrie way up in the stand where a sheepskin- coat-clad figure four months short of his 80th birthday will be shouting the horses home.

Peter O'Sullevan, whose voice long ago rooted itself not only as an essential part of the racing scene but of the national Saturday afternoon, is making the Hennessy his last call.

From standing barefoot on the corrugated-iron roof of a latrine when covering the 1949 Grand National to the investiture of his knighthood last month, by way of calling all the great racehorses of the age - from Ribot through to Red Rum and Desert Orchid - it has been an extraordinary career, and Sir Peter is not being allowed to go gently.

In the year since he let it be known the end was nigh, O'Sullevan has been showered with awards and tributes - races named after him, a bronze bust overlooking the paddock at Aintree, a book of tributes in which admirers from the Queen and Mary Robinson to ordinary punters paid homage, and a slot on Desert Island Discs.

On retirement day itself, O'Sullevan's commentary on the Hennessy will be broadcast live to the racecourse crowd. He will present the trophy and mementoes to connections of the big-race winner - imagine John Motson presenting the FA Cup to the winning captain at Wembley - will himself receive presentations from the course and the sponsor, and the final race on Saturday's card is named after him. In addition, he will link with RTE - the first race on the card at Fairyhouse, near Dublin, is the Peter O'Sullevan Hurdle.

The centre of attention is characteristically embarrassed. "I've been offered a very grand approach to the track by limo and helicopter, but I've declined. The spotlight of the day is too much on me - a mere commentator, just an interpreter, not an achiever."

His reluctance to make a triumphal entrance to the track is explained not just by diffidence, but by a lifelong insistence to sticking to his pre-broadcast routine, and he will spend Friday evening and Saturday morning quietly mugging up on facts and figures and preparing the charts of colours which form his commentating crib.

Sir Peter has commentated on every Hennessy bar one since its first running (at Cheltenham) in 1957, included those towering 1960s races, dominated by Arkle, and it is no coincidence that he had chosen this occasion for his farewell. Long one of his favourite venues, Newbury has seen victories for both Be Friendly and Attivo, the best horses to run in his colours.

But he has another reason to consider Hennessy day especially piquant. The 1979 running coincided with England against the All Blacks at Twickenham and, when a horse named Jack Madness got loose before the big race and delayed the start, the schedules for Grandstand that afternoon started looking dicey. The horse was caught and the race started, but halfway through the Hennessy television viewers were whipped away from Newbury and taken to Twickenham to watch the warm-up to the warm-up. O'Sullevan was incandescent. "It confirms a long-held conviction that the BBC hierarchy simply regard racing as a filler," he said at the time, and nearly two decades later the episode, emblematic of a consistently difficult relationship between the BBC and its greatest racing figure, still rankles.

But what awaits Sir Peter as he comes down from his eyrie? "I'll have more time to enjoy going racing, to watch my colleagues doing the job much better than I did. And I want to devote more time to equine charities."

And there is more to achieve as a racehorse owner. "I've had 40 winners in my colours and I'd love to reach the half-century" - and there could even be a runner in the O'Sullevan colours, Sounds Fyne, on Saturday.

Cue more emotion if that happens, but in any event expect sentiments to run high. He considers himself "a mere commentator" but the rest of sport think him as The Voice of Racing. The voice is about to go still.

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