We associate Peter O’Sullevan with the great occasions, part of his greatness was being just as at ease with the small ones. They didn’t come much smaller than the 9 race Southwell meeting on December 16th 1963. The prize for the Burgage Selling Hurdle was a princely £181. But for me the reward for winning on a kind, white-nosed old horse called Blue Peak was infinitely larger. I got to meet Peter O’Sullevan.
The weighing room was a long, stilted, wooden hut with a smelly loo and two washbasins at one end and a tea urn and sandwiches at the other – better than at Wye where they were all in the same corner, ugh. The message came through that there was a press man outside. That’s heady stuff if you have only ridden three winners. When it’s Peter O’Sullevan, complete with trilby hat and that trademark wool-lapelled raincoat, it’s knockout time.
Yet the clear abiding memory is not of any crowd-hogging celebrity but of a quiet, supportive, rather solitary studiousness. He had seen everything. He knew the horse, was a friend of the owner and had almost certainly not missed the comic little cameo in the unsaddling enclosure. As the heavily bandaged Blue Peak was led in, the trainer came over and in a loud voice said “looks like he has broken down again.” As I began to protest that it was just the lad twisting the wretched beast’s head to make it limp and deter interest at the auction, he shut me up with a brutal smile and hard blow on the ankle. There was no bid.
O’Sullevan had probably backed it. He may have already been “The Voice” that guided us through the drama and the glory of Aintree, Cheltenham, Goodwood and Ascot, but his greatest attraction to race fans was that he too was a punter. In those days, you have got to believe this, he would be more famous for his column in the Daily Express than for broadcasting on the BBC where betting was still taboo. A sense of news from the inside has always been addictive stuff. O’Sullevan, with his unfeigned friendships with everyone from Aly Khan to his ubiquitous “Bert From The Garage”, with his travels to the strange distant racing land that was France, with his ante-post coups and genuine scoops, was the most addictive there ever was or ever will be.
Of course the voice was too. For me it had been there almost from the beginning. At the very start there had been the frenetic radio mastery of Raymond Glendenning but once the arrival of TV had revealed old Raymond as half a furlong behind the action, it was O’Sullevan behind the pictures. That honeyed mix, somewhere between Noel Coward and Michael O’Hehir, became a central part of the great occasions. It was racing’s ultimate good fortune that it was the most skilled, and passionate and eloquent of any voice in any sport. In 1952, I had the good luck to be ill and at home during the Cheltenham Festival. It was the first time I had seen racing on TV. The flashy young chestnut Mont Tremblant won the Gold Cup, the super professional Sir Ken took the Champion Hurdle. The set was black and white. Sir Peter put the colour in.
But it was only half of O’Sullevan. He was no “look-at-me TV host,” and you hardly ever saw him in vision. Away from the screen he was a reserved figure who steered clear of the press pack, a wolf who liked to walk alone but also a gourmet who valued good friendship as much as fine wine. He was a perfectionist with an art lined flat in Chelsea but was never afraid of the hard miles on the open road. That day at Southwell he would have driven himself there in one of those famous Jaguars in which, in later times, he is once supposed to have watched The Morning Line on a portable TV set whilst steering the wagon to Haydock.
He liked details, he liked a story and he was meticulous in his gratitude. In December 1967 after a group of us had taken horses to Cagnes Sur Mer to beat the Foot and Mouth outbreak, he sent us all a Christmas Card and for years would keep thanking me for suggesting he try the food at Le Cagnard. If you ever got stuck with O’Sullevan you only had to ask about recent meals he had eaten. One freezing day at Sandown we were shivering to death waiting for some TV item only for him to warm us up with some super succulent memory from France – “with the peas persillees as they do in Provence.”
His reporter’s voice was careful, friendly, but usually right on the money. If the phone rang and you heard that slightly drawling “It’s Peter here” introduction, you knew he had spied a story to take the game on. In March 1971 he even found one to take me out. I was lying with a back injury in a cottage hospital near Warwick which clearly doubled as an abortion clinic. “The Voice” came on the line understanding that he was now talking to an ex-jockey with one injury too many. It was a scoop – one of O Sullevan’s all time smallest – in the Daily Express next morning.
It had been with Peter on the BBC that I had made my first ever broadcast at Newbury the previous summer. As my throat tightened in terror Peter gave out the most generous and gentle of verbal baton passes and somehow there was my voice saying something fairly unintelligible about how Joe Mercer rode horses to the start. In the years that followed he remained the staunchest of supporters no matter for whom I was working, no matter where we were. Even on the hairy occasion at the 1987 Irish Derby where he, I and Michael O’Hehir were left isolated on the grandstand roof whilst the crowds were evacuated on to The Curragh because of a bomb scare. “What price,” said O’Sullevan in the driest of tones, “they know something we don’t?”
You will imagine the irony when we found ourselves at the Aintree under the same circumstances ten years later. I was there not to broadcast, but to write an article about his 50th and final Grand National. We had climbed the 107 steps to the tin hutch of a commentary box for the earlier races. But when the evacuation order came we were down at the weighing room for one more jockey colours check for that giant, personalised racecard which was always his Grand National lifeline. O’Sullevan was insistent that we should climb the stairs again. “The captain should be on the bridge,” he grumbled, “to tell everyone what is happening to the ship.” It took about three police inspectors to stop him.
In the closing years the commentary had sometimes become a trifle frail, but with the winning post in sight he took on an extraordinary burst of resurgent energy and humour. “An even £ 100, it’s a hoax,” he said as we shuffled out of Aintree. “If we live you pay. If we get blown to bits, I owe you a century.” And with that he repaired to the hotel with Tony O’Hehir to yarn the night away with stories as magnificent as they were well lubricated.
At 80, it would be reasonable to assume that is all he would do. But not a bit of it. The establishment of the Peter O’Sullevan Charitable Trust and the millions it has already raised for horse and human welfare charities has at first sight been one of his most astonishing achievements. Yet then you remember the real anger in his voice when he talked of those who sold stallions (not to mention food horses) into terrible conditions abroad. You recall the firm but relentless way, starting with a column he wrote on a muddy day at Fontwell, in which he persuaded non-believers (including me) that we needed to do something about the whip.
It was the perfectionist in him that could not bear to leave things uncared for and would drive others to follow suit. Years before he agreed to recreate the race commentaries for the film we made about Mill Reef – the fee was “a monkey (£500) for me and a monkey for the stable lads” – he strove tirelessly to get his part right, enjoyed working with Hugh McIlvanney and Albert Finney but castigated me for the choice of music.
Back in 2003 we took him to lunch at La Poule au Pot in Pimlico and persuaded him to do a book on his Horseracing Heroes. The idea was for it to be a happy, mostly “ghosted”, nostalgic tour of one of the greatest careers in history. Not for Peter. He gathered together more books than you would find in a mid-size museum, found a man to restore his antique electric type writer and, at 85, set out to type as detailed and moving and elegant and accurate a memoir as you will ever read.
Well we thought it was accurate. After about ten sets of proofs we finally went to print with what turned out to be three faulty captions in a total of 216 illustrations. “Riddled with errors, c’est un catastrophe,” he said lapsing into French as he does for special emphasis. “It’s just inconceivable how all of you could be so totally incompetent.” The book has been a critically acclaimed bestseller but he hasn’t forgiven me yet.
One of the joys of being a friend of Peter O’Sullevan is the private audio delight that is an ansafone message from the great man himself. In it the voice is as eloquent and mellifulously evocative as ever it was. On Tuesday there was a beauty. It was an invitation to a lunch for his 90th birthday in March. The joy, rightly, will be unconfined.