The funny man who waved his arms about

July 16th, 2019 | Ian Carnaby's Racing News

The sad passing of John McCririck will not have surprised anyone who saw him at the races recently. The weight had dropped off him, he sat quietly in the press room and one had the feeling that he was merely forcing himself to put in an appearance. He was a game old stick, still capable of the odd acerbic comment but well aware that time was running out.

I cannot claim to have known him well and I doubt that many others did, either. Most of the obituaries I’ve seen did a pretty good job, if that’s not too terse an assessment when someone goes on ahead, as the Australians say. He rang me once or twice when I mentioned him in copy, he quite liked references to the past (well, some of them anyway) and appreciated the notion that the time was fast approaching when only he and I would remember and believe certain things.

‘Additional Runner’ was one of them. As recently (!) as 1960 you could buy a late paper, turn it sideways to check the stop press results and see that something had gone in at 20/1 with the fateful words ‘Additional Runner’ alongside. This horse did not appear in the morning papers and was therefore unbackable as far as many punters were concerned; betting shops were only just coming into being and it was a different world.

Even now many people will be reluctant to believe the above is true. Chuckling away, McCririck remembered it only too well, just as he remembered racing correspondent Richard Baerlein writing in the Guardian, even though the paper didn’t print the cards. (Funny how things come full circle because they often don’t appear now, either.)

What can I tell you about McCririck that you didn’t read several days ago? Well, he said he was a failed punter (we all are, aren’t we?) but greyhounds, not horses, helped push him down the slippery slope. He loved the dogs and Greyhound Derby night was one of his highlights of the year. He was a fine, award-winning investigative journalist but the Sporting Life warned him that the betting would have to stop because bookmakers were applying pressure regarding his debts. When he had another big bet to try to set things straight it was the end and Fleet Street had a way of making these things perfectly plain. ‘John McCririck……no longer works for the Sporting Life’ it said on the front page. Just those few words. End of story.

Peter Wilson, ‘the man they can’t gag’ got his son Julian into the BBC and Julian got his Old Harrovian colleague  –  I can’t think of a better word, but ‘cohort’ won’t quite do and ‘chum’ is a million  –  a job behind the scenes on Grandstand, the Saturday afternoon flagship programme fronted by David Coleman (‘that nice David Coleman’ as people used to say).

There wasn’t anything nice about Coleman, who was fiercely professional, admittedly, but so aggressive that sacking some hapless individual, a cameraman perhaps, would be demanded when the mic was turned off, only for the ‘nice’ face to stage a remarkable comeback in the nick of time. This happened often enough for ‘remarkable’ to become redundant. John couldn’t stand him and would unfailingly correct anyone, years and years later, who bought into the more rose-tinted view.

He had to broadcast himself. He HAD to and it came to pass. If he was short of an obvious soap box on the Morning Line he’d knock one up and make use of it. A proper old pro, he knew the rules. The man who splits people down the middle may well last longer than the man who is universally considered all right. And if you’re going to write or broadcast, make sure you read the papers. Having McCririck on board would have prevented one or two major embarrassments on the Saturday morning programme following his departure.

But above all, he had to perform. He had to provoke argument, he had to gurn, he had to act the outrageous fool and it WAS an act, of course. In my opinion, missing the camera and the attention it engendered prompted him to make some foolish mistakes late on, such as his appearances on Celebrity Big Brother, Wife Swap or whatever; I know little of these things, beyond the fact that I dislike them intensely.

I doubt very much that he cared overmuch what people thought of him, apart from ‘the Booby’, of course. He was one of a kind, a throwback to the days of Charlie Smirke and Prince Monolulu, when racing enjoyed a higher profile than it does now. ‘Do you know that funny man who waves his arms about?’ I tell you, in my darker days I’d have avoided a few 3am thoughts if accepting a tenner for every time a non-racing person or non-gambler asked me that. In his own highly individual way, John McCririck was trying to force racing back into the limelight.

I spent a few years wondering how his affection for Newcastle United FC came about. It never came up in conversation, so I never had the chance to point out that I’m the son of a Geordie miner whose brother Tom played for Blyth Spartans before joining Southampton before the war.

It was my one chance to impress him and it never came up. Oh, let’s be honest, he wouldn’t have been impressed and, even if he was, he wouldn’t have let on. Still, I made the occasional mark, like the day at Goodwood when I reminded the crowd of the days when Brian Gubby raced as ‘Brian Gubby Car and Truck Rental’. It wasn’t in the Additional Runner class but John liked it. And, unlike most people and virtually every hack, it meant he was actually listening.

And I liked him, I must admit. Warts and all, I liked him. Because, when it really comes right down to it, he was a character. And if we’re honest, I guess we’d all like people to say that about us when we shuffle off, stage left, having made a barely discernible dent compared to the funny man who waved his arms about.