Sunday Supplement: Sir Peter O’Sullevan Obituary

Sir Peter O'Sullevan in the box

Sir Peter O’Sullevan in the box

Sunday supplement

By Tony Stafford

In racing, if you want to bet and not send yourself horribly skint, it helps if you are “in the know”. The best example of a man’s being in the know, at a time when it was worthwhile, died during one of his favourite weeks of the season.

Sir Peter O’Sullevan – spelt O’Sullevan, not O’Sullivan, even though my computer is insisting on underlining his name as misspelt – will be remembered as the Voice for broadcasts of the Derby, Grand National and Royal Ascot. In the same unflustered manner, he also coped with the many cavalry charges of Goodwood when in the early days, it staged just the one summer meeting.

Sir Peter slipped quietly away at the age of 97 during Glorious Goodwood. I can still tell you where I was when the news came through of President Kennedy’s passing – at an early girlfriend’s house in Bow, East London, in a road which perfectly framed the outline of the first of the Canary Wharf towers where the Daily Telegraph offices were later housed.

I think I could have had something of a scoop where Sir Peter’s death was concerned. Sam Hussey, who lists buying Barnet Fair for 800gns as his best bargain even if his now closed (because of redevelopment) quirky antique shop in Knightsbridge made him a fortune, heard from a friend who had been round to Peter’s flat only to discover the sad news. He phoned Sam and Sam happened to see me outside the owners’ bar at Goodwood and passed it on. Yesterday, before Barnet Fair’s gallant attempt for a repeat win in the Stewards’ Cup consolation race, he said he had given the “scoop” to noted paddock judge Ken Pattinson.

Peter, an Irish-bred scion of Charterhouse, had for many years the gravelly-voiced Etonian Clive Graham as his paddock man for BBC television, later succeeded in the latter role by John Hanmer of the same academy. Once Jimmy Lindley retired from riding he joined the team, thus ending the monopoly of old school voices and heralded the popular and excitable Willie Carson, who made a good job of covering up his brilliant business acumen in the operation of his Minster Stud.

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Jimmy, in physical terms, looks – or did when I last saw him – the least changed of the old brigade, excepting evergreen Willie. I used to love his pet phrases especially when he was talking about his mate Lester, also such a close friend of Sir Peter’s. Jimmy loved a late run, saying “Lester got up in the last little knockin’s”. Everyone else could voice that old cliché without the little in the middle.

O’Sullevan had more than his share of scoops, many with inside info from such giants of the turf as Vincent O’Brien in Ireland and Alec Head in France. The latter, who will be 91 this month, is still fit and well and his son and daughter, Freddy and Criquette, trainers respectively of Goldikova and Solow, and in her case Treve, both maintained the flow of information  to the family friend well into his 90’s.

O’Sullevan’s charitable works have been well chronicled and as last week’s excellent 16-page Racing Post memorial pull-out revealed, it has been responsible for millions going to his favoured charities. With J P McManus such a major part of that project, there seems little reason to believe that the charity will slow down in the coming years.

Peter shared with two other racing notables, Sit Mark Prescott and Charlie Brooks, a birthday of March 3. Whenever it came around in the Post it told me that mine would appear the following day with among others Peter Stanley, Lord Derby’s brother and boss of New England stud, and Dougie Costello.

Sir Peter came into the world two years before my late father, a long-standing reader of the O’Sullevan column in the Daily Express, and 28 (and a day) before me, so when I went to Newbury at the age of 18 the day before my GCE Economics A Level, his was the information I wanted to possess.

Before one race, I walked up to a bookie and had a probably more than prudent chunk of the £25 I’d manage to squirrel away for the afternoon, and backed his tip. As I took the slip from the bookmaker, I noticed to my right, a stylish middle-aged (to me – he was 46!) gentleman who called out his bet – on a totally different horse at more than double the price of my nag. Needless to say, Peter tipped a loser, but backed the winner, trained by Ian Balding. I went home broke but collected an “A” in the exam.

In those days naivety was one of my more endearing characteristics and for some time after I managed to fluke my job writing about and tipping horses, I rarely strayed from my original fancy. Except, that is, memorably in the 1988 Ayr Gold Cup when I recall I was leading the Sporting Life naps table and had picked out the 33-1 shot So Careful, trained by Jack Berry.

The Life used to come through for all the selections in early evening, but after they called I had the nagging feeling that David Chapman’s Glencroft, one of that trainer’s inexorable improvers in the way of David O’Meara nowadays, would be hard to beat.

I called up to make the change which they accepted, but it was too late to change it in the table as that page had already “gone to bed” as we used to say. So after viewing from Newbury to see Jack’s horse romp home, it was embarrassing to have to deflect the congratulations of Michael Jarvis – “great nap, you should win it now!”  I didn’t, not that year at any rate.

Back in 1974 I did have a big-priced winning nap, Ocean King in the Cesarewitch, a 25-1 shot ridden by Tommy Carter for trainer Arthur Pitt and owner Victor Morley-Lawson, who was a remarkable man generally described as the bearded solicitor.

Morley-Lawson had mixed the day job with an obsession of winning a race as a jockey and for the previous 30 years he had tried unsuccessfully to do so despite riding out on Epsom Downs most mornings. Then in 1967, the year before Ocean King’s great win, Morley-Lawson rode the same horse to glorious triumph over hurdles at Warwick – at the age of 67. I believe that was his final ride.

He also owned and bred a better-class Cesarewitch winner in Popsi’s Joy, victorious under Lester Piggott in 1980. Popsi’s won 17 races in all and his big victory came at the expense of the great Harry Wragg, the Head Waiter, who was in the next group behind Sir Gordon Richards in the years either side of World War 2.

That year I managed a young Welshman, the bubbly Bryn Crossley, who was to become champion apprentice but his career stuttered after that. Harry wanted him to ride Popaway, an improving three-year-old filly, but because the weights did not go up, she was I think 10lb wrong. Bryn’s 5lb off helped and he managed 7st2lb for only the second time that year. We went to see Harry and son Geoff at Abington Place stables and Harry minutely briefed his jockey. Bryn did everything right, but the older Popsi’s Joy was too good and Popaway did well to finish a gallant runner-up.

I’d only just started as part-time editor of the much-admired weekly, The Racehorse, which I prepared on Monday and Tuesday mornings in Battersea before afternoon/evening shifts at the Telegraph, then took Wednesday off from Fleet Street for print day at the Oval. If you thought I wasn’t busy enough, I worked every Sunday and then earned a few extra bob on Saturday subbing sports results for the Sunday Telegraph.

As one of my first – if not the first – offerings, the Ocean King tipping front-page piece was headed, “By the Editor”. Sir Peter was always one to encourage young writers, and he was moved enough to pen a congratulatory letter. Having scoured around for the appropriate name, he found one elsewhere either in that paper or its stablemate, the Winner.

Sir Peter’s letter, addressed to The Editor, began: “Dear Roger Jackson…” What a lovely man!

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