TRIBUTES poured in last night for the man known simply as the “Voice of Racing”, Sir Peter O’Sullevan, who has died at the age of 97.
O’Sullevan was the commentator for the BBC for 50 years from 1947 until his retirement in 1997.
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.
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.
Ex-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. When I first started in TV he gave me all the confidence in the world and I couldn’t say enough about him.
“As a commentator no one else could give you the same feeling watching a race.”
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.
“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.”
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. He did it all through his big, heavy binoculars and I never heard him call a wrong one.”
Broadcaster and pundit John McCririck also paid tribute to O’Sullevan, describing him as the “ultimate professional”.
He said: “His commentaries will live for centuries. All the great races since the war have been called by Sir Peter O’Sullevan until his retirement.
“He was recognised for his commentary and set the benchmark. His journalism was absolutely outstanding and he was the ultimate professional.”