‘Voice of Racing’ Peter O’Sullevan passes away aged 97
BBC commentator for over 50 years was also a successful racehorse owner
Former BBC racing commentator Peter O’Sullevan, pictured here at Newmarket in 2011, has passed away at the age of 97. Photograph: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images
Peter O’Sullevan, known to many as simply the ‘Voice of Racing’, has died at the age of 97.
Born in Kenmare, Co Kerry in 1918, O’Sullevan was the commentator for the BBC for 50 years, a tenure stretching from 1947 until his retirement in 1997.
Known for his sharp mind, even well into his later life, he had a delivery like no other and his description of the 1977 Grand National, which was Red Rum’s famous third success, and Desert Orchid’s popular Cheltenham Gold Cup victory in 1989 will never be forgotten.
He was awarded a knighthood before his 50th and final Grand National commentary and even until very recently was still a regular visitor to the Cheltenham Festival.
Nigel Payne, chief executive of the Sir Peter O’Sullevan Charitable Trust, said: “Sir Peter died earlier this afternoon, very peacefully, at home.
“Sir Peter was one of the greatest men I’ve ever known. Only last week he was talking about what he wanted me to do for the trust in the future. He was still very alert. It’s a sad day.”
O’Sullevan began his career in racing in print journalism, working for the Press Association before joining the Daily Express.
Known as one of the shrewdest punters in the game, he was still beating the bookies in his later years.
As well as being famous for his achievements behind the microphone, O’Sullevan was also a successful owner.
Be Friendly won the King’s Stand at Royal Ascot and the Prix de l’Abbaye at Longchamp as well as two Haydock Sprint Cups, and perhaps most famously of all his Attivo won the Triumph Hurdle at Cheltenham in 1974, a race O’Sullevan later described as the hardest to call in his life.
Former jockey Jimmy Lindley, who later worked with O’Sullevan for the BBC, said: “He was a great friend and I’m so sorry.
“He doesn’t just compare with the great people in racing, but in life in general
“He had a little black book with all his contacts and form lines and basically the history of racing was in it. It made him fortunes and I’d love to see it, he must have won a fortune..
“I’m so sorry to hear the news.”
Broadcaster and pundit John McCririck described him as the “ultimate professional”.
He said: “Everyone will say he was the voice of racing, because he was. His commentaries will live for centuries.
“All the great races since the war have been called by Sir Peter O’Sullevan until his retirement.
“Underneath it he was a tough, hard journalist, a secretive man and a quiet man.
“You respected what he said. He had very strong opinions, not popular with everyone. A lot of people will be eulogising about him, quite rightly, but he was tough and hard underneath and to his soul a journalist.
“Commentary has evolved, helped by Sir Peter, of course, but he was a commentator from another era. He was recognised for his commentary and set the benchmark.
“His journalism was absolutely outstanding and he was the ultimate professional.”
Jim McGrath, who succeeded O’Sullevan as the BBC racing commentator, told At The Races: “It’s a very sad day in racing and you can feel that here at Goodwood. It’s dawning on people that the man they knew as the voice of racing for more than two generations, the voice that was synonymous with our sport for so many people, has gone. It’s hard to believe.
“At (the age of) 97, it’s a great knock, but at the same time he was razor-sharp in his mind right to the very end, although he did say to me recently ‘I don’t think the body’s designed to last 100 years!’
“He was a great, great man. He had a complete understanding and appreciation of exactly what was happening on the racecourse.
“He had an appreciation of the racehorse itself and also the jockeys, the participants involved and every layer of preparation that went into getting a horse to the racecourse. He could identify it and appreciate it and I think that came out in his commentaries.
“I think racing has been very lucky to have a man that was so passionate about the sport able to eloquently convey everything that was good about it to the outside world.
“He was a great sports commentator and this was long before we had close-up shots and people describing things off monitors. This was with the famous BBC binoculars off a German U-boat, with big fields at very big racetracks. It was some effort to do that.
“His technique changed as he got older. He adjusted his technique to suit himself.
“His name lives on with his charities and the amount of money he’s raised has been quite incredible. It is a mark of the man.”
Derek Thompson was a counterpart of O’Sullevan on ITV and later Channel 4, and still works as a broadcaster and commentator.
He said: “He was the greatest commentator of all time, simple. You don’t get any better than Sir Peter O’Sullevan.
“In those days there was no colour TV, there was no monitor, maybe black and white if you were lucky, he did it all through his big, heavy binoculars and I never heard him call a wrong one.
“He did his last Grand National commentary at the age of 79 – imagine doing a commentary on a race, never mind the Grand National, at 79.
“He loved it, he lived his racing. As a young man all he wanted to do was get into racing. He used to go to Epsom, he was brought up near the Downs and he’d go there as a young kid on his own.
“He would get up and it was all racing, he was a guy who crossed the line for the people in the street. Everywhere you’d go, people knew him. People knew Red Rum and people knew Peter O’Sullevan.
“When I first heard him at the age of six I thought ‘that’s the guy I want to be’, but I never got anywhere near him. To this day I wanted to be half as good as Peter O’Sullevan. He was the greatest commentator of all time, not just in racing but in all sports.
“What he had you couldn’t buy, and he was a great guy as well.
“There’ll never be another Sir Peter O’Sullevan, he was absolutely incredible.”