Obituary: Sir Peter O’Sullevan, horseracing commentator

Sir Peter O'Sullevan: Journalist and commentator who was universally known as the 'voice of racing'. Picture: Getty
Sir Peter O'Sullevan: Journalist and commentator who was universally known as the 'voice of racing'. Picture: Getty
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Born: 3 March, 1918, in Kenmare, County Kerry. Died: 29 July, 2015, in London, aged 97

Universally known as the “voice of racing” Sir Peter O’Sullevan, exemplified the professionalism and knowledge that all the BBC’s great commentators such as Bill McLaren, David Coleman and Harry Carpenter possessed. His laid-back commentaries delivered in his famously velvet tones made him famous at home and abroad. The fact that he commentated on the BBC’s radio and then television broadcasting of the Grand National for 50 years is evidence of his renown and longevity, something he never expected to enjoy.

For O’Sullevan was a sickly youth, and he once said that if he had been offered odds of 100-1 that he would live past 50, he wouldn’t have taken the bet. He was born in Ireland to Killarney’s resident magistrate Colonel John Joseph O’Sullevan DSO and his wife Vera, the daughter of Sir John and Lady Henry, and his early days were bedevilled by asthma, the illness which killed his father in 1936.

His parents had separated when he was just six, and O’Sullevan went to live with his Henry grandparents in Surrey.

As well as asthma, O’Sullevan suffered three bouts of pneumonia before he was ten, but even such serious illnesses could not prevent him becoming enamoured of horses, not least when he was allowed to ride his pony round Epsom racecourse at the age of seven, and, even more tellingly, when he had sixpence each way on Tipperary Tim, the 100-1 winner of the 1928 Grand National.

As O’Sullevan told it in his memoirs, his expertise in calculating bets from a young age did not extend to algebra, and he failed the entrance exam for Charterhouse, only to be allowed in because of his undoubted prowess on the cricket pitch.

His mother’s second marriage to the much older Colonel Bertie Pott gained O’Sullevan a stepfather who provided for him in many ways – he indulged O’Sullevan’s love of ponies, turned a blind eye to his teenage betting, usually with two Scottish bookmakers, and then ensured that his education was completed at the Collège Alpin in Switzerland after a bout of double pneumonia.

Fluent in French as the result of his Swiss sojourn – he would later make fortunes betting on French horses in Britain – O’Sullevan returned home to seek a career in journalism but only saw hospitalisation, this time for a chronic skin disease called furunculosis, which afflicted with unsightly boils. A lonely child, O’Sullevan became even more of a loner due to his skin disease, which often resulted in him only venturing out after dark.

He had been given a new car at the age of 17, and became a skilled driver. His betting began to make him more money than any other pursuit, and he soon drove to visit almost every racecourse in Britain – at that time, bookmakers were only legal at the track.

Having been unsurprisingly turned down for wartime active service, O’Sullevan signed up for the Chelsea Civil Defence Rescue Service, for which his first task during the Blitz was to remove a young girl’s body from a bombed-out air raid shelter – in later life, he would often talk of the obscenity of war.

O’Sullevan ventured into horse ownership – quite unsuccessfully at first – before the end of the war, by which time he had become a very successful gambler, making £368 and 15 shillings on one race, the 1943 Oaks won at Newmarket by Why Hurry. The following year he made his first move into journalism as a sub-editor for the Press Association. In 1947 he met Patricia – who he married in 1951 – and made his first broadcast commentary for the BBC, an association that would last for 50 years. His distinctive voice and encyclopaedic knowledge of racing would duly become an essential part of the British sporting scene, synonymous with the National, the Derby and the Cheltenham Festival.

In 1950, O’Sullevan became the racing correspondent of the Daily Express and over the years would land many scoops, as well as using his considerable influence on campaigns such as his successful bid to persuade the Jockey Club – he would become a member in 1986 – to crack down on the overuse of the whip by jockeys.

Off screen, O’Sullevan’s gambling successes continued apace, but on screen he and the BBC entered into a golden age of racing coverage. The first Grand National to be televised was in 1960 and it was soon televised globally, while O’Sullevan’s Irish connections did him no harm as he cultivated a long-lasting friendship with the great Irish trainer Vincent O’Brien and his regular jockey Lester Piggott as they won Classic after Classic.

O’Sullevan’s professionalism was perhaps best displayed when he called home as winners several horses that he owned including the great sprinter Be Friendly and the Triumph Hurdle winner Attivo. “Owned by Peter O’Sullevan,” he would intone, as if talking of another person.

His dual role with the BBC and Express gave him remarkable influence in his sport that continued even after he retired from the newspaper in 1985.

A lover of fine wines and good food, and a noted art connoisseur, Sullivan was often a prickly character in person, perhaps a legacy of his solitary childhood. Yet he mellowed late in life, while his work for horseracing charities was always committed and laudable – he was estimated to have raised £3 million for his eponymous trust that funded six animal-related charities. His work for racing and charity was recognised by the Queen with an OBE, CBE and a knighthood on his retirement from broadcasting in 1997 after his 50th Grand National.

Latterly in poor health and having suffered a stroke, Sir Peter O’Sullevan became a virtual recluse at his London home. His wife predeceased him in 2010, and they had no children.