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PETER OSULLEVANS ARCS - Brough Scott

On Thursday morning Peter O’Sullevan and his little poodle Topolina closed up their elegant Chelsea flat and got into his “wolf in sheep’s clothing” top-of-the-range Golf R to speed to  Paris for the Prix de L’ Arc de Triomphe. Well what’s the point of hanging about if you are 92?
Especially if you first made the trip in 1936, meaning that you have done it more times than any of the thousands who on this one day make Longchamp almost reach for the “House Full” sign. “Yes,” he remembered as he sipped the first glass of rose on Tuesday evening, “that was Corrida’s year, she was a Boussac mare, won it again in 1937. She was trained in Chantilly by Jack Watts, the father of Bill Watts. Most of the trainers were English back then.”
Don’t for a second think that all he can give you is racing data. “I drove to Paris of course” he chuckles, aware that even experienced O’Sullevan watchers can be wrong footed with a flourish of extra-curricular detail. “I had a Morris eight horse power, ceiling wax red, registration number RD6 647. It had cost just £100, no small sum in those days, a most unexpected present from my dear grandmother.”
He smiles wryly as he acknowledges how distant this all seems. In 1936 Edward VIII was on the throne, Fred Perry had won his third Wimbledon, Jesse Owens had infuriated Hitler by winning 4 gold medals at the Berlin Olympics and Spain was being ravaged by Civil War. “It was a different world,” says the man whose eloquence, work ethic and passion for the game made his voice a uniting force through every class of racing supporter despite the fact that his own origins were of the most privileged kind. Much of his childhood being spent at Gatton Park, his grandparents stately home near Reigate from which Truelove, the groom, took the 8 year old O’Sullevan on a trip to gallop his pony round Tattenham Corner, and from which ten years later Pattenden, the chauffeur, drove the new Morris 8 over to “Master Peter” at Charterhouse School and went home on the train.
“No one would believe it now,” he says, himself wondering at the astonishing “Upstairs Downstairs” scenario. “But at Charterhouse one of the staff came to me and said ‘your grandmother thought you would like to go to Goodwood so she is sending the car over.’ I dropped Pattenden at the station and spent the day at the races on Trundle Hill.”
“Of course,” he adds, relishing mouth-agog looks from his listeners, “I learnt to drive when I was nine. Pattenden put extra cushions in the front seat of the Minerva (a luxury Belgian alternative to Rolls Royce) and we would go up and down the drive at Gatton. The handbrake was outside and you had to double declutch so I was very well taught and when I passed my driving test in Maidstone, the examiner said that if everyone could handle cars as well as me his would be an easy life.”
 The letters and guest lists and auction items strewn across the sitting room table are proof, if any were needed, that the “easy life” option is not one that O’Sullevan has ever pursued. They represent the mounting work load of the 14th “Peter O’Sullevan Charitable Trust Award Lunch” which to date has raised over £2.6 million for his six specified charities. This year it is once again a total sell out and the Dorchester Ballroom will be bursting at the seams with a record attendance of 482 and Terry Wogan stepping up to do the speech for his fellow broadcasting knight.
“You can’t imagine his attention to detail,” says organizer Nigel Payne, “I sent him the menu last month and got an exasperated reply scolding me about not putting the ‘umlaut’  above the ‘o’ in ‘Rosti’ potatoes.” Actually Payne, who was one of the owners of 1998 Grand National winner Earth Summit, is not altogether accurate in his assumptions. Anyone listening to Sir Peter “raking over the embers of my memory” can easily imagine that errors rarely escape.
By 1947 the young O’Sullevan had not just got himself on to the Press Association but had persuaded them of the importance of him building up his French connections. So much so that when the National Hunt Festival was cancelled because of weather so bad that there was no racing from 22 January to 13th March and even Buckingham Palace was reduced to candlelight, it was O’Sullevan who persuaded Chantilly trainer Willie Head to enter his Le Paillon in the re-scheduled showdown and watch rather painfully as Willie’s son Alec got outsmarted by Ron Smyth on National Spirit. Le Paillon’s subsequent victory in that year’s Arc de Triomphe must be one of the most celebrated examples of “losses being only lent.”
What never ceases to astound is quite how brilliantly well connected Peter was. Not for him a couple of contacts, the Racing Post website and a re-write of press releases (OK – he was fifty years before the internet), O’Sullevan’s personal network stretched from stable lads to lords of the realm and seemed to specialize in Australian jockeys beginning with the great Rae Johnstone whose autobiography Peter ghosted. “In 1954 Rae needed the rain so badly for Sica Boy that he washed the car on the day before the Arc,” says Peter, “and there was something of a meteorological overreaction and the place was a swamp. The horse won all right but the real problem was the owner Madame Cochery’s parrot which she had taught to say ‘Sica Boy has won it, Sica Boy has won it, Sica Boy has won it,’ and it wouldn’t bloody stop before or afterwards. Bloody parrot.”
The sound of a swear word amidst the mellifluous O’Sullevan tones reminds you of the determination that took him to the top and which drives him to this day. By 1950 he had moved to the then mighty Daily Express and by Sica Boy’s Arc he was doing the commentary for the BBC. “It was a bit precarious in the early days,” he says, “I remember calling Ribot (1955 and 1956) holding on to a balustrade at the top of the stand and just about the worst moment of all was 1962, (Soltikoff), when at the start the runners all suddenly disappeared, imprisoned in the starting stalls which of course were not yet operating in England. It was a challenge you later got used to but that first time I just felt bereft, couldn’t see anything.”
No journalist or broadcaster can ever have been so close to the heart of things as O Sullevan was in his heyday. He wasn’t just real friends with the leading players he was acting for them; getting the money on, as in the case of Ballymoss in 1958, and planning to buy the winner as in the case of Vaguely Noble in 1968. In the event neither case went through smoothly. Ballymoss won all right but only after the ground had got so soft that Vincent O’Brien had begged Peter to get the stable out of the hefty bet O’Sullevan and his friend Roland de Chambure had placed on their behalf and were not able to unscramble from the PMU. Vaguely Noble was a “might have been” in the other direction, Peter having been commissioned to go to virtually any price to buy “something out of the ordinary” for the Marquesa de Moratalla only to turn away at the Tattersalls auction as the price spiralled above the 100,000 mark.
“Think of it,” he said on Tuesday, “he turned out to be a 136,000 guinea bargain. However Vaguely Noble’s Arc is one that I remember better than any personally because Be Friendly (his own horse) had won the Abbaye, and I had also tipped my reader Major Rose at quite a lucrative price to win the Cesarewitch and backed them all in a treble”
No one can ever doubt the affection bordering on hero-worship that O’Sullevan has had for the leading players both equine and human which he has watched down the years , but he is far from being one of those puritanical purists who declare proudly that “they are not interested in betting.” Peter is. He has backed Sarafina for this year’s Arc but is horrified about the turn of the weather and the last message from Paris was – “Sol (Marquesa de Moratalla) says there is a horse that we have got to back at Longchamp on the Saturday but she hasn’t bloody well told me what it is.”
This affinity for the punter has been at the core of his abiding appeal but he loves to tell the story of how his normal good manners were stretched to breaking point after Lester Piggott and Nijinksy had failed to nail down the winner Sassafras in 1970. “It was really the ringworm (which the horse had in midsummer) that beat him,” said Peter on Tuesday, “Lester admits he got things wrong on Park Top the year before, but on Arc day Nijinsky was not the horse he had  been. It was an unhappy event and as I left the track two punters came up to me and said ‘hey Pete, did Lester make a boo-boo then?’ I turned to them and said ‘why don’t you **** off?’”
The thought of the calls of ‘Pete’, and of Lester’s ‘boo-boo’ not to mention the shocking ‘**** off’ will raise a smile amongst O’Sullevan aficionados as do so many of his recollections of the 11 times champion jockey with whom he has had a close association ever since driving him from Lincoln to Aintree as a thirteen year old “with the face” in Peter’s immortal phrase “of a wilful cherub”. Best of all because the tales involve the inimitable O’Sullevan voice dropping into a comic mimic of the Piggott mutter. “Peintre Celebre (1997) was my last TV commentary and afterwards Lester was very sweet and said to me ‘That was all right,’ (in mimic mode), you have never done it any better. What do you want to pack up for?”
On Tuesday evening we had now moved on to the pink champagne but the images continued to sparkle. It was as though you were sitting with some superbly civilized, four dimensional memory machine when even entering an apparently fairly innocuous query like “did you back Three Troikas?” (the 1979 winner owned trained and ridden by three different members of his great friends the Head family) could prompt an anecdote to treasure as well as terrify.
“That was the night we got on to the Calvados,” O’Sullevan offered by way of explanation for what followed. “I was drinking with Micky Stackpool a Belgian agent and bon vivant and by the time it got to three in the morning we said there was no point in having any more glasses, we had better down a bottle. I was staying at a new hotel near Neuilly,” he added, “and as it was before we worried about drink driving I somehow drove myself back to the hotel but in the morning had absolutely no idea where I had left the car.”
A year ago it was only champagne that we sipped by the paddock before what the French rather charmingly call the “Debut des operations” for an afternoon which would crown or dethrone the legend that was becoming Sea The Stars. But O’Sullevan was nervous, as nervous he said as he could ever remember, with the hope that Sea The Stars could take his place alongside the super horses of yesteryear, whether he could really be measured alongside something as spectacular as Dancing Brave’s epic finishing sprint, or even begin to approach the wonder that was Sea Bird.
“Ah yes Sea Bird,” said Peter O’Sullevan, his voice revelling in the sheer perfection of the memory. “He only ran four times that year (1965), the Lupin, the Derby, the Grand Prix de St Cloud and the Arc, but he was absolutely exceptional. He beat an unbeaten French Derby winner (Reliance) by six lengths with three other Derby winners (Meadow Court- Irish, Anilin – Russian, and Tom Rolfe-American) further behind and did it in a canter hanging right across to the stands rail. Before the race Francois Mathet (Reliance’s trainer) said to me, ‘I tell you something Peter, that horse won’t do to mine what he has done to the others.’ But he did. He did.”
Back on Tuesday preparations were being completed for what will be a 65th pilgrimage to Arc day in the Bois de Boulogne and this year they include two very important documents to ensure safe conduct not just for the driver but for the miniature passenger whose name means “baby mouse” in Italian. The first is from O’Sullevan’s doctor to state that ‘Topolina’ must accompany her master as she is classified as an “assistance dog” whose presence is necessary at all times. The second is from legendary restaurateur Albert Roux to state that ‘Topo’ has been an esteemed and discreet customer at La Gavroche and others of his establishments and should be treated as an honoured guest wherever her master should take her.
That evening Topo was indeed both courteous and discreet as she sat with us at Elistano’s during dinner, but on Thursday there was actually a more poignant reason for her to accompany Peter for the journey towards the Seine. For she had also been a joy in the life of Peter’s late wife Pat who died on the very last day of 2009 and Pat’s ashes were to be in the Golf as dog and master speeded south with one last duty to do.
“It was a gorgeous autumn afternoon,” said Peter on Friday. “We went to one of our favourite hotels in which Pat and I used to stop near Bethune on the way to Paris. They have the most beautiful garden and in it we found a lovely apple tree, a real calvados tree, and we buried Pat beside it.”
For much of the time Phil Bull’s famous dictum of racing being “the great triviality” rings true enough. But when you think of the old man and his dog and that apple tree, it’s hard to be quite so sure.