Sir Peter O’Sullevan’s first words were to the point – “Yes, Brian, I can see where you’re coming from on this, but, frankly, what you’re saying is complete bollocks”. This wasn’t, and isn’t, an unfamiliar sentiment; but it’s never sounded better. Racing’s “Voice” had spoken and first-hand sounded even more impressive.
The “this” was the aftermath of the infamous 1997 bomb scare Grand National when some hero made a phone call that forced Aintree to be evacuated and sent everyone scurrying back into Liverpool looking for emergency accommodation.
RTÉ’s Tony O’Hehir and myself secured two vital rooms before finding O’Sullevan already settled into the hotel restaurant, coming to terms with having had the opportunity to call his 50th and final Grand National seemingly taken away by stupidity.
As a fellow member of the commentary elite O’Hehir was enthusiastically welcomed to the great man’s table: the pilot-minnow was too star-struck to take his cue and take a hike, and too dumb to keep his mouth shut.
So, a Knight of the Realm, who prior to providing the soundtrack to half a century of racing’s greatest moments had braved the blitz as a rescue worker, a confidant to the great and the good, was treated to a detailed analysis of why he would yet get the chance to call the National since the British government couldn’t afford to be seen to give in to threats. Hence the “bollocks” comment.
What was often lost behind the urbanity and rich patrician tone was the bold fun which many of those who properly knew the man say they will miss most now he has passed away.
It was disconcerting at first to hear the familiar velvety voice employing fruity language: then it made sense, like being allowed in on some warm, raffish in-joke.
O’Sullevan loved a yarn. He also loved a bet. Sure enough he offered 5-2 to both of us against the race getting run which felt like a challenge that couldn’t be ducked. That was the other thing. Behind the suavity always lurked the tough journo whose main source of income for almost four decades was churning out copy for the
, a long way from some public school cartoon.
People instinctively warmed to the mix. Continuously interrupted that night by a stream of revellers wanting to shake his hand, O’Sullevan’s patience was pristine, the manners impeccable.
“I don’t know how you put up with that,” I said at one stage, since clearly I wasn’t one of “them” anymore. “What would you have me say?” O’Sullevan replied. “Fuck off?”
He could have, but never would. This was a man who understood the pull racing can generate, from the meanest backstreet betting shop to the most gilded of chateau. He was comfortable in both, but perhaps most comfortable of all on-track next to the horses. He loved a bet, but most of all he loved the animals.
That love resonated through his much reprinted autobiography and other books, many of which highlighted the need to tackle animal welfare generally, and in racing in particular.
His campaigns against misuse of the whip were heartfelt and consistent, often battling those with sufficient gall to query his credibility in countering jockeys reluctant to alter their behaviour.
Even the trite old “how many winners have you ridden?” argument was employed: O’Sullevan never rode a winner and remains perhaps the only riposte necessary to such a hackneyed query.
His credibility lay in possessing supreme knowledge and judgment of what he was looking at, allied to a palpable decency, which provided racing with a credibility it can continue to bank on for years to come.
The news of O’Sullevan’s death started to circulate last week at the same time as the famous Galway Plate was being run. At the second fence in the big race, three horses fell, two of them fatally. A couple of hours earlier, another horse had been fatally injured in a hurdle race.
As the massive crowds continued to enjoy the festival revelry, oblivious to the demise of Foildubh, Make A Track and Catimini, you didn’t have to be any kind of bleeding heart to ponder the toll jump racing can demand for its thrills and spills. Anyone who’s ever been faced with a badly injured animal knows its visceral impact. And only the most witless have never felt a spasm of doubt about whether or not such a stark toll is justifiable in terms of entertainment, sport or plain business.
There are times when it can all look a long way from edifying. O’Sullevan however never had a doubt.
As a bright man with plenty of courage, he must have parsed the ethics and he was unshakable in his belief that while all proper precautions have to be taken, and that everything that can be done to make an inherently dangerous sport as safe as possible must be done, there’s no escaping the reality that horses leaving the ground at speed will always get hurt.
There’s reassurance in how such a cultivated, accomplished and obviously humane man could acknowledge that yet still cherish the game, a game that once offered me a brief opportunity to talk to the great man, even take money off him.
You see, for once, I wasn’t talking bollocks. We did go back to Aintree two days later and sure enough O’Sullevan paid up on the spot. He even managed to remove any unease there might have been about it.
“Don’t you boys think you were taking advantage of an old man,” he purred. “I would have bet twice as much if I hadn’t been sloshed!”
Later he even told the story against himself. He told it better too.