Peter O’Sullevan dies age 97

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Peter O’Sullevan, who has died aged 97, raised the quality of commentating on horse races to a new and unparalleled level of excellence. He worked for the BBC from his first commentary in January 1948 until his retirement, at the age of 79, in November 1997, and became known as the “voice of racing”. For much of this period he was also employed as racing correspondent for the Daily Express. Working in tandem with Clive Graham, he made the Express racing page obligatory reading for all turf enthusiasts.

O’Sullevan was born in Kenmare, Co Kerry, the son of Colonel John Joseph O’Sullevan, a soldier and the resident magistrate of Killarney, and Vera (nee Henry), daughter of an English, titled justice of the peace. His parents separated in the early 1920s, and O’Sullevan was brought up by his maternal grandparents in the Surrey countryside.

An only child, he was always content with his own company, and that of his pony, Fairy. He remained essentially a loner for most of his life, preferring to work, travel and eat on his own when away from home. Educated at Charterhouse school, in Godalming, Surrey, and a boarding school in Switzerland, O’Sullevan suffered in his youth from poor health, and in his late adolescence from a disfiguring facial skin ailment, for which he received lengthy treatment at the Middlesex hospital.

So self-conscious was he of his appearance that for many months he would venture outdoors only during the hours of darkness. Inevitably, with a history of asthma, bronchitis and dermatological problems, he was turned down for military service, and spent much of the second world war serving in the Chelsea Civil Defence rescue service.

Even during wartime, betting on such horse racing as there was occupied much of his time, and in December 1944 he applied for a job as a racing subeditor at the Press Association news agency. After VE Day and the resumption of a full racing programme, he was employed as an “outside” man responsible for race descriptions. It was during this period that he encountered Peter Dimmock, a former RAF pilot and instructor during the war who, after demob, enjoyed a brief employment with the PA before moving on to BBC TV’s outside broadcast department.

Peter O’Sullevan with a horse and foal, 1969. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Peter O’Sullevan with a horse and foal, 1969. Photograph: Norman Potter/Getty Images
Dimmock’s bustling self-confidence rapidly earned him a role both as producer and race commentator for the BBC, in which capacity he employed O’Sullevan as a much-needed race-reader. O’Sullevan’s skill in this role earned him a broadcasting trial at Cheltenham in autumn 1947. His first “live” commentary followed two months later. The following year he commentated on his first Grand National, covering the first fence for BBC Radio.

When Dimmock, who became head of BBC outside broadcasts in 1954, finally persuaded Aintree’s owner, Mirabel Topham, to allow television coverage in 1960, O’Sullevan led the commentary team, and called home the next 38 Grand National winners.

In 1950, O’Sullevan left the Press Association to become racing correspondent of the Daily Express. Thus began the legendary partnership with the Old Etonian Graham, which had developed its roots in television, with Graham acting as O’Sullevan’s race-reader. Graham was to become BBC TV’s paddock commentator in a partnership that lasted for 25 years until his death in 1974.

O’Sullevan soon earned a reputation for unearthing “dark horses” in his pre-season tours of French stables. His fluent grasp of French, acquired at school in Switzerland, gave him a head start over his journalistic rivals. It also enabled him to land some substantial ante-post betting coups on the frequent French winners of top British races.

His successful betting enabled him to own several racehorses during this period, but here he was less successful. The first dozen that he owned failed to win a single race, and in 1960 he estimated that he had owned 21 horses, with only four modest “selling race” successes to show for his investment.

In October 1965, however, he bought a yearling colt for 2,800 guineas at the Newmarket October sales, which he named Be Friendly. The horse was to become the Champion Sprinter of Europe, winning 12 races including the Vernons Sprint Cup twice, the King’s Stand Stakes at Royal Ascot, and the Prix de l’Abbaye de Longchamp. He ended his career with a stallion valuation of £88,000 – the equivalent of almost £2m nowadays.
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O’Sullevan earned widespread plaudits for his controlled television commentary on Be Friendly’s big successes. He was also behind the microphone when his other successful racehorse, Attivo, won the Chester Cup and Triumph Hurdle. As a journalist he enjoyed the confidence of leading personalities in racing, notably Lester Piggott. He was entrusted with betting commissions by several top trainers, in particular his friends in Ireland and France.

By the late 1960s, O’Sullevan was at the height of his journalistic and broadcasting fame and in 1968 he was approached by ITV to “change sides”. Dimmock knew the value of O’Sullevan’s popularity, however, and went to extreme lengths to hold on to his prize asset. Despite O’Sullevan’s frequent criticisms of the BBC, both privately and in print, neither Dimmock nor any of his successors chose to risk earning the label of “the man who lost O’Sullevan”.

O’Sullevan exploited his untouchable status with considerable skill financially, as he did when approached by the Daily Mail in 1973. His temporary resignation from the Express, and reinstatement, led to a salary rise from £5,500 to £9,000 pa. When he finally left the Daily Express in 1985 it was in an atmosphere of acrimony. No love had been lost between him and the newspaper’s sports editor, who had hoped that O’Sullevan would retire three years earlier at 65.

In truth, while O’Sullevan was much admired by fellow journalists, until recent years he had few close friends. As a broadcaster he was considered difficult to work with and rarely, if ever, socialised with colleagues.

As his career in journalism drew to an end, O’Sullevan threw himself into charitable work, notably in the field of horse welfare. In 1983 he embarked on fundraising for the International League for the Protection of Horses. Other charities to receive his support were the Brooke Hospital for Animals, the Thoroughbred Rehabilitation Centre, and several other horse-related charities. In 1999 he established the Sir Peter O’Sullevan Charitable Trust, which raised more than £3m for six animal-related charities.

In 1986 he was elected a member of the Jockey Club, which gave him an official platform from which to voice his antagonism towards excessive and improper use of the whip by jockeys.
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O’Sullevan was married in 1951 to the former model Pat Duckworth. She died in 2010. His personal life remained very private, and his wife’s dislike of flying meant that he spent many holidays on his own. Travel, fine wine and haute cuisine remained his favourite pleasures.

He was appointed OBE in 1977 for his services to broadcasting and CBE in 1991 for his charity work. In 1997, the year of his retirement from broadcasting, he received a knighthood.

• Peter John O’Sullevan, racing commentator, born 3 March 1918; died 29 July 2015

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Article courtesy of Guardian Newspaper

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