John McCririck obituary: Racing pundit, journalist and broadcaster

Provocative television personality who became one of the best-known figures in horse racing

John McCririck with his wife, Jenny, at the Derby in 2009. Photograph: Javier García/Rex/Shutterstock

John McCririck with his wife, Jenny, at the Derby in 2009. Photograph: Javier García/Rex/Shutterstock

 

John McCririck

Born: April 17th, 1940;

Died: July 5th, 2019

John McCririck, who has died aged 79, was one of the pioneers of an abrasive, in-your-face, style of television broadcasting which was provocative, challenging and entertaining to many. His loud, misogynist manner offended some viewers, but enabled him to become the best-known and most discussed individual in horse racing.

As the face of male chauvinism, he was hired regularly by TV producers to appear in light entertainment and lifestyle programmes such as Celebrity Big Brother, Wife Swap, Loose Women and The Weakest Link. But his great love, and most significant source of income, remained horse racing, and, despite a claim by his long-suffering wife, Jenny (nicknamed “the Booby” by her husband), that “John won’t get out of bed for less than £1,500”, he was content, in later years, to cover an evening race meeting on satellite TV for a few hundred pounds.

For many years, bedecked in an Old Harrovian blazer, or a swirling cape and deerstalker hat, his act (for that is what it was) was a blend of Peter Wilson (the journalist known as “the Man They Can’t Gag”) and the racecourse tipster Prince Monolulu, whose trademark cry of “I Gotta Horse” resonated around racecourse enclosures during the postwar period. McCririck’s racecourse diatribe, accompanied by tic-tac hand signals, invariably attracted a pied-piper following of camera-seeking and often inebriated racegoers.

Disastrous

His career faltered in 2008, when Channel 4 Racing reduced his appearances, to McCririck’s annoyance and frustration. Still his popularity remained buoyant in the US, where his visits invariably included contributions to ESPN’s coverage of the Breeders’ Cup race meeting. Unhappily, one broadcast in 2009 proved disastrous, when he decried the chances of two well-fancied runners, Conduit and Zenyatta, both of which won.

When, in 2012, Channel 4 announced that McCririck would no longer be part of its presenting team, he claimed ageism at an employment tribunal. He lost, with a ruling that McCririck’s “persona ... style of dress, attitudes, opinions and tic-tac gestures” were “unpalatable to a wider potential audience”.

Tantrum

McCririck was born in Surbiton, Surrey, and educated at Victoria College, Jersey, where his parents developed property, and Harrow school in London. He spoke rarely, if ever, about his parents – his father died in the mid-1950s – and refused to acknowledge his age or date of birth, flying into a tantrum if wished a happy birthday.

At Harrow he received occasional visits, in a chauffeur-driven Bentley, from his mother, whose sartorial appearance was in stark contrast to the understated dress sense of the majority of pupils’ parents. He did not excel in academia, was regarded as the scruffiest boy on “the hill” and was thrashed more than once for rudeness to the house matron.

On leaving school, he entered the catering trade, gaining work experience at the Dorchester hotel in London and the Knightsbridge Sporting Club opposite Hyde Park. But the lure of horse racing and betting drew him into experimentation with working in a betting office, assisting a street bookie called “Wingy” and “standing” himself as a racecourse bookmaker.

In the mid-60s he worked as a private handicapper to a tipping publication, Formindex, and in 1970 produced a Racing Data publication for the Liberal MP Eric Lubbock, who at the time was president of the Data Processing Management Association.

But 1971 was the year that changed his life. He married Jenny, a domestic training manager, and moved into her grace-and-favour apartment in Marylebone, together with two large Labrador dogs. The nickname he gave her, “the Booby”, was a reference, he said, to a bird that is “stupid and pathetically easy to catch and squawks a lot”.

Grandstand

He also persuaded the BBC that its reportage of betting on races and the delivery of starting prices (SPs) could be streamlined and much improved. Within a fortnight he had moved into the production studio of both the BBC’s mid-week racing transmissions, and Grandstand, where he co-ordinated the presentation of betting shows and SPs.

At the same time he entered journalism, and worked as coursing correspondent for the now-defunct Sporting Life between 1972 and 1984. His career as a writer and reporter, broadening into coverage of horse racing, earned him several awards, including specialist writer of the year in 1978, and, the following year, campaigning journalist of the year, following his exposé of improper practices at the Tote under the chairmanship of Woodrow Wyatt.

But his days behind the camera in Grandstand led to a growing frustration and determination to spread his wings. In 1981 he moved to ITV, and when Andrew Franklin and Brough Scott planned the switch of the independent network’s coverage of racing to Channel 4 in the mid-1980s, McCririck offered himself as an on-the-spot reporter of market moves, located in the centre of the betting action.

Betting jungle

Franklin and Scott went for it; McCririck was given the freedom of the betting jungle, and coverage of horse racing was transformed. As his reputation as an audience-puller increased, he became the “must have” voice of racing on radio and television, when any general-interest racing story broke.

While his star remained in the ascendant in television, his associates became concerned at the effect of the on-course bookmaking environment on his personal betting transactions. In March 1984 the Star newspaper’s front page carried the headline “TV Star’s Gambling Debts”. The essence of the story was that bookmakers were writing off massive gambling debts in return for publicity.

McCririck sued for libel and won six-figure damages. His creditors were satisfied and McCririck reined in his betting. Despite now earning substantial sums through broadcasting and public appearances, he maintained a low profile in his personal life. When he and Jenny moved away from the Marylebone flat, their new home was a modest mews cottage in Primrose Hill.

Celebrity Big Brother

McCririck would hold court, seated on the floor, or a wicker chaise longue in his ante-room in the manner of Buddha, smoking a vast cigar and calling for champagne to be served by his wife. “The Trap”, as the dwelling was named, and McCririck’s lifestyle, were revealed to a horrified public during his ill-advised appearance on Celebrity Wife Swap, on which he was matched with the former Conservative MP Edwina Currie. This followed his equally controversial appearance on Celebrity Big Brother in 2005, during which he refused point-blank to speak for three days when he was deprived of his daily “fix” of Diet Coke.

His compliance with requests to feature in similar programmes baffled his associates after his earlier humiliation. Nonetheless, appearances on Loose Women (he was booed off), the Sharon Osbourne Show (the hostess threw water over him), The Weakest Link, Hell’s Kitchen and the Alan Titchmarsh Show (the host asked him to leave) all followed. A man who in the 1980s had been viewed as a hard-working and serious journalist was now playing the part of the unlovable clown in burlesque.

One individual who never left his side was Jenny, who was his driver (he refused to drive a car), gofer (holding his umbrella at the races), caterer, housekeeper, dog walker and defender. She never accompanied him on his holidays to Las Vegas, Bangkok and Japan, however, preferring to spend his absence working their dogs and “picking up” at friends’ shoots.

McCririck had few close friends, but there were many who held him in deep affection. Beneath all his petulant bluff and bluster, he remained an essentially kind person and a generous host.

Jenny survives him.

– Guardian service