Peter O'Sullevan dead: Voice of authority formed a magical bond with nation

As BBC commentator for half a century, he was as much a part of the racing experience as the horses he called

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The Independent Online

Quiet falls over the Turf, a minute’s silence please for one of the great broadcast careers. The winners were called by velvet instruction, mellifluous commentary laden with expertise and feeling. Peter O’Sullevan takes with him to the other side a voice of exquisite sensitivity and authority, synonymous with the sport that he covered as the BBC racing correspondent for half a century.

It was as though the horses raced to provide a canvas for his entry into our lives, the purpose being to listen, not to watch, or even to bet. The delivery marched along in perfect synch with the gathering of the hooves, quickening over the Flat as the horses burned towards the line, or more measured over the fences.

O’Sullevan was a journalist by trade, which, when coupled with his love of the horse, gave him a wider appreciation of the demand when describing the action. Like those other giants of the commentary box, Murray Walker in motor sport and Harry Carpenter in boxing, O’Sullevan came to the microphone via radio in the post-war era when sport as entertainment was in its infancy.

Each became indelibly attached to their chosen disciplines, the comforting familiarity of their voices as much a part of the experience as the action. The advent of the cathode ray tube projected their faces into the living rooms of Britain, deepening the bond with the nation.

As a successful owner O’Sullevan was able to indulge his passion in a material sense denied Carpenter and Walker, although Murray’s old man did race bikes. Be Friendly on the Flat and Attivo over the jumps were his most notable charges, the latter providing the lovely moment at Cheltenham in 1974 when O’Sullevan called his own horse home in the Triumph Hurdle. “And it’s first Attivo, owned by, uh, Peter O’Sullevan ... trained by Cyril Mitchell and ridden by Robert Hughes,” was the immortal line.

For kids of a certain vintage the incomparable feats of Red Rum at the greatest racing spectacle on earth, the Grand National, forged a love of the race and of the man. It was the early Seventies. We were in the early stages of colour television and in those days live sport was a rare treat, but racing was cheap to deliver and so Saturday afternoons became a diet of live racing and wrestling interspersed with weird and wonderful sporting highlights from across the globe. Ice hockey springs to mind.

For the National the whole family would be corralled around the box, mum and all, with the names of our runners plucked from a hat. By increments O’Sullevan would keep the magic alive or, more readily, let us down at Becher’s or the Canal Turn when Old Neddy came tumbling down, “Oh he’s gone, a faller there, Old Neddy down at the last...” and then on, without missing a beat.

“And Red Rum wins the National,” rang out no fewer than three times. Trainer Ginger McCain became indivisible from the horse in O’Sullevan’s telling, those caramelised tones dispensing love and wisdom in equal measure.

“The crowd are willing him home now. The 12-year-old Red Rum, being preceded only by loose horses, being chased by Churchtown Boy. They’re coming to the elbow, just a furlong now between Red Rum and his third Grand National triumph. He gets a tremendous reception, you’ve never heard the like of it at Liverpool.”

We hadn’t, and never will again. Peter O’Sullevan, gone at 97.