Obituary: Julian David Bonhôte Wilson, racing broadcaster

Julian Wilson: Racing broadcaster of the old school who railed against 'dumbing down' at the BBC. Picture: Julian Herbert /Allsport
Julian Wilson: Racing broadcaster of the old school who railed against 'dumbing down' at the BBC. Picture: Julian Herbert /Allsport
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Born: Sidmouth, Devon, 21 June, 1940. Died: 20 April, 2014, in Newmarket, aged 73

THE veteran BBC racing broadcaster and commentator Julian Wilson, whose death was announced on Monday, was one of the most distinctive faces and voices on television during a distinguished near 32-year ­career with the corporation.

It may surprise many that this quintessential Englishman actually started his journalistic career in Glasgow as a junior reporter on the city’s long-since defunct sports paper, the Noon Record, part of the Daily Record group, where he started on £3 and 10 shillings a week. He wrote about rugby and football as well as racing, and recalled long afterwards the grounding in journalism that Glasgow gave him.

His first assignment was to cover racing at Ayr in 1958, and 43 years later he finally achieved his ambition of owning a winner at the Craigie track.

Wilson’s death after a long battle with cancer has seen him correctly recalled as one of the most professional and astute figures in sports coverage, a precise broadcaster who combined an incisive mind with a patrician air.

His trademark trilby, often doffed, lent him a raffish look enhanced by his precise public school tones that some viewers found irritating but which endeared him to many “old school” racing aficionados, particularly those who appreciated Wilson’s serious approach to racing.

It was no surprise that he brought highly professional attributes to his chosen trade as his father Peter was arguably the best, and certainly the most famous and highly paid, football writer in postwar British journalism, known as “the man they can’t gag”.

Wilson senior’s writing in the Daily Mirror was followed by millions, but his son, who did not always enjoy a happy relationship with his father who left home when he was just three, would eventually number his audience in the tens of millions, especially when the Grand National came round.

Wilson spent his school years at Harrow, where the influence of a racing-mad aunt saw him first develop his love of the Turf, and where he excelled at sport rather than studies. He happily admitted that he learned to bet while at Harrow, and was constantly on the telephone outside the school to bookmakers. A close contemporary at Harrow was John McCririck, whose style as a betting correspondent for Channel 4 could not have been more different.

Deciding to follow his father’s example, Wilson sought employment in newspapers, and from Glasgow he somehow maintained his interest in the London society circles with which he, as an Old Harrovian, was well-acquainted.

His youthful dalliances with – according to his own memoirs – several debutantes, also included an encounter with a paramour at Ayr’s Station Hotel. Wilson was nothing if not eclectic in his passions, being a very keen ­cricketer and a lifelong fan of Swindon Town.

The rough and tumble of newspaper journalism was soon left behind when he saw an advertisement for a “racing presenter” which led to him being offered the job of racing correspondent with the BBC in 1966.

It was there that he teamed up with commentator Peter O’Sullevan to form an enduring partnership that fronted the BBC’s racing coverage for most of the next 30 years.

O’Sullevan was peerless in his commentary, always delivered in the Irishman’s memorable tones, while Wilson’s encyclopaedic knowledge of racing form made him someone that punters respected – he would spend hours studying form each day and developed into a successful gambler. Together they formed a formidable duo in the 1960s and 70s when racing was a major part of the flagship Saturday afternoon Grandstand programme. He went to considerable lengths to point up the all-important changes in the betting – this at a time when the BBC was banned from even mentioning bookmakers.

Though always deferential to senior figures in the sport, Wilson was also not afraid to court controversy, and several interviewees complained that he had been too tough with them.

He famously asked Lester ­Piggott after one of his Derby wins: “When did you think you had won the Derby?” To which Piggott replied: “Six months ago.”

Wilson always wanted the job that O’Sullevan did so well, and he thought he would get it in 1983 when his colleague reached 65. But Wilson had misunderstood O’Sullevan’s wishes about retiring, and consequently lost out on the job of commentator with ITV as he waited for O’Sullevan to go.

It was a rift that was never truly healed, and Wilson became increasingly disillusioned with the BBC as racecourse coverage contracts went to Channel 4 in particular. He was also scathing about the “dumbing down” that he saw across the BBC, and was not entirely enamoured when Clare Balding, now recognised as one of the UK’s finest broadcasters, was introduced to the BBC racing team.

Resentful of the changes, shortly after O’Sullevan retired, Wilson bowed out at the Welsh Grand National meeting at Chepstow in December 1997. In retirement he wrote several books including his tell-all autobiography Some You Win which can only be described as racy.

As well as being a successful gambler – he backed Shergar at the ante-post odds of 33-1 to win the 1981 Derby – Wilson owned several horses, including 1977 Gimcrack Stakes winner Tumbledownwind and 1996 Royal Ascot winner Tykevor. He was also a successful racing manager for, among others, Sir Clement Freud. Living for many years in Newmarket, British racing’s HQ, Wilson indulged his love of cricket and good wine, and was as affable off screen as he was ­serious on it. He continued to own horses through his Seymour Bloodstock concern.

Wilson contracted prostate cancer in 2001 but had been in remission for some years until the disease returned last year and took his life.

He married Carolyn Michael in 1970 and they had a son, Thomas, who survives him, as does his second wife, Alison Ramsay.