I only once encountered John McCririck at close quarters. We were at neighbouring tables at a smart London restaurant, and I found it very hard to take my eyes of him. He was with his wife - “The Booby”, of whom more later - and they positioned themselves side-by-side at the table. Throughout the entire course of the meal, not a word passed between the couple, as McCririck sat there reading a newspaper.
It wasn't just his penchant for gold costume jewellery, his dandy-meets-Sherlock-Holmes dress sense, his overgrown sideburns and his theatrical conversational style, that ensured McCririck cut an eccentric figure. His opinions, too, often expressed with pantomime rage, made him a singular character as a television presenter.
For 29 years as a racing pundit for Channel 4, McCririck lived the dream, unworried about who he might offend, unabashed about his studiedly controversial persona. And at the age of 73, it all came to an end, not with a valedictory parade at Cheltenham, cheered to the rafters by an adoring public but with a phone call and a press release.
In McCririck's own words, he had been done for by the “anonymous suits and skirts” who run television. Yesterday, an employment tribunal ruled that he had not been sacked because he was too old, but because he had, in the view of his bosses, run his race. In style and substance, he was an anachronism.
I don't know which bit of Channel 4's imprecation to leave McCririck didn't understand. He said he was encouraged to behave like a stage villain, but he must have known that such acts have a limited time span. His wife Jenny vehemently defended McCririck against any charges of sexism, although, given that she uncomplainingly accepts the moniker “The Booby” - thus christened by her husband because, he says, she's “not very bright, sqwauks a lot and is easy to catch” - her opinion might be considered inadmissable.
Even in the course of the tribunal hearing, McCririck appeared to be channeling UKIP's Godfrey Bloom, and, having declared that he had a penchant for women with fringes, he said: “I happen, sadly, to be someone who likes the female front structure a bit more than different parts of their anatomy.” Why that should be a cause for regret, I don't know, but that sentence tells you most of what you need to know about McCririck. He's an inappropriate, out-of-date controversialist, and you can understand why Channel 4, keen to widen the appeal of such an esoteric pursuit as horse racing, put him out to grass.
Outside the court, McCririck was eager to portray himself as a freedom fighter for those of a certain age. And it's true that the insecurity felt by workers in their forties, fifties and sixties these days is a very real, and shamefully under-reported, phenomenon. Anyone of that age who works in an office lives with the fear that they are about to replaced with someone younger, cheaper and with a more intuitive understanding of technology. That's where real age discrimination takes place. There is an important, very serious debate about ageism in the workplace to be had, and it shouldn't be hijacked by a pompous, preening self-publicist.