Hugh McIlvanney leads tributes to the life of Sir Peter O’Sullevan

Newmarket Racecourse

The bibulous lunches and fearless gambles which gave Sir Peter O’Sullevan so much pleasure have been recalled at a memorial service for the much-admired horse racing commentator, who died in July.

A crowd of 700 including famous faces from the worlds of racing and television gathered at St Luke’s church in Chelsea to hear tributes led by Hugh McIlvanney, the revered sports writer who counted O’Sullevan as a friend.

“Peter was an exceptional journalist and one of the greatest commentators sports broadcasting has produced,” said McIlvanney, who nevertheless felt that a simpler tribute might be a better fit for O’Sullevan. “He was great company. And by that I mean more than that he swelled the pleasure of a day’s racing or a long lunch. He didn’t just enhance occasions. He enriched lives.”

Borrowing the words of the great American journalist Red Smith, McIlvanney said: “Dying is no big deal; the least of us will manage it. Living is the trick.” It was a trick that O’Sullevan thoroughly mastered, despite the severe and varied health issues of his youth that led to a ‘Phantom of the Opera’ phase, when he could venture out only in a medicated mask.

McIlvanney contrasted that troubled young man with the “handsome, urbane and immaculately tailored” adult who was at ease in any company and who drove himself to Paris for the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe each year for seven decades. “He was behind the wheel at 94, still giving a fair impersonation of a getaway driver.

“He liked to be something of a lone wolf when operating professionally. At other times he could be convivial on a scale that thoroughly exposed the non-stayers in his company.”

McIlvanney described his friend as “a hard player of the betting game” and recalled a time when the bookmaker’s representative Wally Pyrah returned home to be told by his mother that an entirely charming man called Peter O’Sullevan had rung up with an order for £700 each-way at 14-1 on Trainglot for the Cesarewitch. Pyrah was somewhat dismayed by this news, as the horse had been cut to 7-1 that morning.

O’Sullevan’s charm could be turned off if he was sufficiently displeased and McIlvanney described his “talent for acerbic reprimand”, typically delivered “in sentences of flawless grace and precision. It was like being handed an ornate silver casket containing your mutilated ego.”

Several speakers told of the pleasure O’Sullevan had taken in organising his memorial service, relating that they were asked around for a chat over coffee that became several glasses of champagne. Among them was Joanna Lumley, who read ‘At Grass’ by Philip Larkin, an evocation of retired racehorses in a field.

Terry Wogan’s reading was The Donkey by G K Chesterton, especially apt inasmuch as the two-year-old colt named after Chesterton broke his duck in a Redcar maiden 11 days before this service. Surely O’Sullevan would have invested.

Among the bidding prayers was one read by the Kildare jumps trainer Arthur Moore, who described the Kerry-born O’Sullevan as “a true Irishman. He loved a horse. He loved a bet. He loved the Irish. The Irish loved him.”

The impressionist Rory Bremner, whose mimicking of O’Sullevan’s voice was at one time almost as familiar as the thing itself, provided a final mock commentary to send the crowd away smiling. “They’re under holy orders,” he began, “and now bursting from the stalls … that’s the choir stalls behind me.” He described the owner JP McManus, sitting in one of the front rows, as “the top-weight, carrying £1,000 in petty cash…”

Lester Piggott, mentioned during the service as O’Sullevan’s oldest friend, was also among the dozens of racing luminaries in attendance. Other jockeys included AP McCoy, Mick Fitzgerald, Joe Mercer, Mark Dwyer, David Mould, Willie Robinson, Jimmy Lindley and Bob Champion. The training fraternity was as well represented by John Gosden, Paul Nicholls, Nicky Henderson, Jonjo O’Neill, Michael Dickinson, Martin Pipe, David Pipe and John Dunlop, while Criquette Head-Maarek and François Doumen made the journey from France.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Chris Cook, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 27th October 2015 21.09 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010