Sir Peter O’Sullevan

Early Years

Born on 03 March, 1918 in County Down, Ireland, the man known affectionately as the “voice of racing” had a BBC career spanning generations. Tipster, pundit, commentator, owner and enthusiastic philanthropist are all terms that sit well with Sir Peter in explaining a life devoted to racing and the welfare of horses and jockeys. For those who grew up listening to his measured tones, gradually rising to a crescendo as the race concluded, occasions like the Grand National lack a little of the old sparkle they once had.

Sir Peter O'Sullevan

Sir Peter O’Sullevan

The velvet-voiced race caller was born into moderately-wealthy stock in Newcastle, County Down, Ireland, as the Great War lumbered towards its death throes. His mother was a member of the local hunt and it is there that Sir Peter first developed his love of horses – a love that would win him special affection with the British people.

His first flirtation with racing came with the maiden radio broadcast of the Grand National in 1927. A year later, at the venerable age of 10-years-old, O’Sullevan bet sixpence each way on the 100-1 outsider and eventual winner Tipperary Tim and a career was born. Two years earlier, after his parents decided their marriage was not destined to survive, the young O’Sullevan was packed off to his grandparents’ in Surrey to continue his development unhindered by family strife.

Behind The Pen

That development led him to a job as a racing correspondent with the Press Association in 1944, at the age of 26. Perhaps alerted to the connections of this fledgling talent, the Daily Express secured his services in 1950 and he remained with them until 1986. It was then he joined the now-defunct Today newspaper, owned by Eddie Shah, to add credibility to the UK’s first colour daily. He left Today in 1987. A year before he left the Express, he began a 10-year association with the race-goers’ bible, the Racing Post, as a Director.

There is no doubting Sir Peter’s credentials as a print journalist. It is rumoured that the Express paid handsomely to keep both him and his extraordinary contact book in their employment. When a certain Mr Piggott asked O’Sullevan to give a lift to his son Lester, a friendship was nurtured that would survive even Piggott junior’s jailing for tax offences in 1986.

From Sound To Vision

This chance meeting was another example of how O’Sullevan’s immersion in his chosen sport gained him a unique insight into racing. His passion for the sport of kings was spread to a wider audience with his broadcasting career.

After honing his skills in radio, Sir Peter added the pioneering new medium of outside broadcast television to his repertoire in 1947 and gave some of the BBC’s earliest outside sports broadcasts. He has been heard calling home winners at almost every major horse racing event on the calendar but his voice is synonymous with arguably the greatest race on the planet.

TV Gold

Although covering it on radio since the late 1940’s, it was in 1960 that he first tackled live commentary of the Grand National for BBC Television. It was an association that would last until his retirement in November 1997, in a race marred by an IRA bomb hoax that meant the National was eventually run on the following Monday.

Spanning those years, O’Sullevan called home some historic victories in the Grand National. These included Bob Champion’s heroic run on Aldaniti in 1981 after battling back from cancer, 100-1 outsider Foinavon’s remarkable win in 1967 and the legendary three times winner Red Rum in 1973, 1974 and 1977.

Perhaps one of the most bizarre events ever, happened in 1993 with the National that never was. The starting tape having wrapped itself around the neck of Richard Dunwoody, a false start was given and Jenny Pitman’s Esha Ness came home first ridden by jockey John White, only to be told the race was void. Sir Peter’s explanation of and observations on all of the above, only served to cement them as historic moments in sporting history.

Philanthropist

As Independent columnist Brian Viner observed in an interview with Sir Peter in April 2005: “…the expression "great man" is bandied about a little too readily in relation to both broadcasting and sport. But O’Sullevan really does qualify.” That greatness was enhanced by the formation of The Sir Peter O’Sullevan Charitable Trust in 1997. Helping a variety of horse-racing welfare charities, it has raised over £1.5 million since its inception and continues to do much for the welfare of horses.

O’Sullevan has long campaigned against overuse of the whip by jockeys, feeling it is unproductive and cruel, and there are many instances of him putting this opinion into the public domain. He has written several books on his favourite subject and continues to be sought as a judicial voice on racing matters.

Sir Peter has called over 14,000 races in his remarkable career and his services to the sport have been recognised by the establishment.

Achievements

Personal:

In 1977 he was awarded the OBE; in 1991 he received the CBE and was knighted in 1997.

As a trainer:

• First winner under NH Rules in 15th year of ownership – Pretty Fair at Windsor on 11th March 1954

• Best Horse – Be Friendly: won 12 races, placed 10, earned European record for sprinter of 43,880

• And Attivo, unbeaten over hurdles as a four-year-old – won Daily Express Triumph Hurdle, Chester Cup and Northumberland Plate • Racehorse Owner of the Year 1974 for Attivo

• Elected to Jockey Club 1987

His Professional achievements:

• Derby Award 1971 with Clive Graham and again in 1987

• Timeform Racing Personality of 1974

• Press Club International Clive Graham Memorial Trophy 1978

• Evening News Sports Commentator of the Year 1978

• William Hill Golden Spurs Special Award 1985

• Press club International Clive Graham Memorial Trophy 1985

• Racing Club of Ireland par excellence Award 1993

• Variety Club of Great Britain Media Award 1995

• Help The Aged Hall of Fame Golden Award for charity work 1996

• Daily Star Annual Award – services to racing 1996

• Lester Award by Jockeys Association 1996

• Royal Television Society Judges’ TV Sports Award 1996

• Radar/Abbey National Person of the Year award 1997

• Cartier Award of Merit 1997

• Forte Hotels Legend in Sport Award 1997

• Horserace Writers and Photographers Association George Ennor Trophy 1997 • TV and Radio Industries Club Special Award 1998

His Interests:

• 1979-93 Director of the International Racing Bureau

• 1985-95 Director of Racing Post and Chairman of the Osborne Studio Gallery

• 1999- Patron of the Brooke Hospital for Animals, Thoroughbred Rehabilitation Centre, International League for Protection of Horses, Compassion in World Farming, Honorary Vice-President of Stable Lads Welfare Trust

Publications:

• Calling the Horses, 1989 – updated 1994 – Audio Version 1996

• Sir Peter O’Sullevan’s Horseracing Heroes, 2004 – Paperback published in 2005