Tributes have been pouring in following the death of one of racing's most familiar figures, John McCririck.
The 79-year-old did more than almost anyone in a generation to take horse racing into the consciusness of the general public through his flamboyant TV appearances spanning several decades.
I got to know John and his wife Jenny over several years as they were permanent fixtures at Glorious Goodwood. John added colour and charisma to the press room and the parade ring and was always happy for a chat about the day's best bets or big races.
By way of my own tribute to Big Mac, I'm republishing - below - an extended piece I wrote after a visit in July 2012 to his home in Primrose Hill, London, where he, his wife - known of course as Booby - and his then Channel 4 TV partner Tanya Stevenson chatted to Goodwood press duo Brad Eccleshare and Emma Wood and I about the following week's Glorious Goodwood festival.
It remains one of the most memorable assignments I've had the pleasure of carrying out in nearly 30 years working for newspapers....
Article first published on www.chichester.co.uk on July 30, 2012
If Glorious Goodwood proves half as entertaining as 90 minutes in the company of a double act who will make up a key part of Channel 4’s coverage of the festival, we’re in for a treat.
The only problem with spending an hour-and-a-half with John McCririck and Tanya Stevenson is it’s not long enough. Not nearly long enough. You could chat to them all day and still not cover everything you want to.
John, or Mac, or Big Mac - call him what you will, within reason - is not known for being short of an opinion or two. This is one interviewee who never shies away from an answer or an issue. But the woman he calls ‘The Female’ – his C4 betting ring partner Tanya – gives as good as she gets and has plenty to say too.
We were invited to the London home Big Mac shares with wife Jenny – better known as Booby, a name the nation has been familiar with ever since the legendary Channel 4 racing pundit appeared in Celebrity Big Brother – to quiz Mac and Tanya about their love of Glorious Goodwood and their place at the centre of the TV coverage, which will see four races shown live every day.
Booby provided the tea, coffee and cake; Mac provided the colour and cigar smoke, Tanya the sensible bits about horses, jockeys and trainers worth keeping an eye on at Glorious.
Mac has been going to Glorious for more years than he cares to add up but is looking forward to it as much as ever.
“I first went on Trundle Hill as a teenager in the 1980s,” jokes the 72-year-old. “That has to be the finest free show in racing. It’s not advertised at all. The Trundle used to be packed for the festival but it’s not now. It should be. More would go and watch from there if they knew they could and that there were bookies up there.”
McCririck admits seeing huge crowds on the hill won’t help Goodwood get them through the gates and paying but that’s a theme of any conversation with him. He speaks up for racing itself, but also for the people who go to watch it and the horses – his fortright views that recent whip rule changes for jockeys don’t go far enough, and that a total whip ban is needed and is inevitable, are proof of the latter.
“We’re looking forward to coming down but it’s so dependent on the weather. Goodwood needs sun and it looks like we might be in luck this year,” he says.
He is disappointed there’s not an even stronger field to take on Frankel in the Sussex Stakes and feels sponsors QIPCO could have put up a £1m incentive for any horse that finished first with Frankel behind. But he adds: “It will be great to see Frankel.”
He says Dancing Brave is the first rival you should mention when discussing if Frankel is the best horse Goodwood has ever seen, while both he and Tanya admit it’s hard to compare horses from different eras - although she does bring late 1980s star Zilzal, winner of the Sussex Stakes in 1989, into the equation.
Mac says the undulating Downland course is a tough one to read. “It’s very hard for punters and bookmakers - it’s a tricky course.”
Tanya is at pains to stress Glorious is not all about the Sussex Stakes, saying the Betfred Mile on Friday and the Blue Square Stewards’ Cup are two of her favourites. The Mile, she points out, has been won by a horse drawn five or lower in nine of its last 11 renewals - including Boom or Bust, who won under Hayley Turner a year ago from stall one and is due back this year for a title defence.
Both experts reckon Richard Hannon and Richard Hughes should have another glorious Glorious, particularly with their two-year-olds. Mac adds: “Hughes is a way behind Ryan Moore now in the jockeys’ championship and while Moore will win the championship again and William Buick will win it, this year could be Hughes’ last chance. So he’ll want to get some winners during the week. With their two-year-olds, Hughes and Hannon’s strength in depth is immense.” Luca Cumani’s horses should also be closely watched, says Tanya.
Mac would like to see Glorious pushed back a day - in fact he’d like to see a number of major racing festivals end on a Sunday, but admits that change is unlikely. “I’d like to see the major events finish on the Sunday but the crowds don’t turn up. It’s a hard sell. I’m a strong supporter of Sunday racing but not everyone agrees.”
Another change he’d like to see across racecourses is for paddocks to be moved in front of stands so there is more for race-goers to see, but he exempts Goodwood from this wish. “There wouldn’t be room to do it at Goodwood - you’d be over the cliff. There are many racecourses that could do it, but I blame lazy management for it not happening. I’d like to see double the number of toilets at racecourses too.”
Mac and Tanya will be part of an incredible 70-strong Channel 4 team at Glorious, a figure that includes all the technical staff, some of whom drove to Goodwood on Saturday night straight from the meeting at York to get the set-up started. The duo be perched trackside and at the heart of the betting ring to bring viewers all the market moves and ones to watch.
And their homework started a long time ago. Tanya, who doubles up as PA to C4 Racing executive producer Andrew Franklin, reveals: “I’m already looking ahead to York (the Ebor festival) and the St Leger. You can’t be too prepared - it would show if you were not prepared. In the Channel 4 office we have UK Racing and At The Races on all the time so we are getting fed information constantly. You’re always studying the form.
“On each day of the festival we’ll have a production meeting around 9.30 - that can be a friendly bun fight when you’re all throwing in ideas. But it’s non-stop, even after you come off-air each day.”
There’s great excitement at Channel 4 as they take over all terrestrial racing coverage from next year as the BBC gives up the final few days of racing it still has. Mac says the fact the BBC took 17 minutes to put up the starting price of the winner of the Ascot Gold Cup - where as Channel 4 places great store by the whole betting picture and now even show in-race prices - is proof that the broadcaster is more than worthy of taking on the Beeb’s workload. “All credit to Channel 4 for backing racing,” he adds. “We’ll have the Grand National, Cheltenham, the Classics, Goodwood, York, Doncaster - there will be great continuity.”
Mac and Tanya - both, incidentally, former bookmakers, and who are now 11 years into their on-screen double act - will both be on the panel for The Morning Line, C4’s Saturday morning racing magazine programme which will come live from the course on the final day of Glorious.
But what are they looking forward to before then? “I like the Pimm’s, but the champagne’s a bit expensive. But I like the whole atmosphere,” Mac asserts. And Tanya? “I like the betting ring and the banter - and free strawberries.” The pair are also praiseworthy of the fact pensioners, as well as students aged up to 25, get into the course half-price while under-18s go free.
Mac’s flamboyant attire will include his ‘old faithful’ Panama which, he says, has seen all his ‘heartbreak, disaster and bad days’ at the festival.
Tanya’s early days at Glorious were as an ‘apprentice’ to her bookie father, who traded under the name of Michael Duncan, first on the Trundle and later trackside.
As for other tips, Mac won’t be drawn - instead referring such enquiries to ‘The Female’, who seems not to mind her nickname and happily tells us Hawkeyethenoo will be one to follow in the Stewards’ Cup if the ground is no harder than good.
Just as the pair might be on the verge of giving us some more beasts to follow, a different animal interrupts the conversation - it’s the Warrior Queen, aka the McCriricks' cat, who is trying to jump off a nearby ledge but is hampered by a jungle of plants. Mac gives a racing-style commentrary as Booby rescues their pet, though not before a few claws are shown and anguished miaows are heard.
It’s an entertaining sideshow to an entertaining morning in the company of two people who will add colour, knowledge and humour to Glorious, both for TV viewers and those who encounter them in person at the racecourse.
With that, Mac meanders on to a story about burglars - and our cherished time in the presence of a legend - no, make that three legends - is over. More’s the pity.
- STEVE BONE
* Two footnotes to that 2012 pre-Glorious interview. Hawkeyethenoo did win the Stewards' Cup, as Tanya had suggested, at 9/1 - and three years later Qatari sponsors did make the Sussex Stakes a £1m race, exactly the value McCririck had talked about to spice it up three years earlier.