McIlvanney wins O'Sullevan award as auction raises £122,000 for charity
Sir Peter O'Sullevan would have been closing in fast on his 100th birthday had he been present in London’s Dorchester Hotel on Thursday for the award ceremony that takes his name.
His death in 2015 is felt keenly still among his many avid supporters. So much so that every table housing a record audience of 492 was rebooked from the same day a year earlier.
That keen association, born of a respect for O’Sullevan’s outrageously evocative career, has led the annual award ceremony to the point of its 21st birthday as popular as it ever was.
Fundraising is its aim and the racing crowd always comes suitably well armed in that respect, spending £122,000 on ten auction lots after lunch.
Bidders would have been spurred on no doubt by the O’Sullevan legacy, which seems to only grow in its influence on the sport he loved. Next year’s Lambourn Open Day now bears the O’Sullevan imprint, while in 2019 a rehab centre in the mould of Oaksey House and Jack Berry House is due to open in Newmarket.
In 2017 more than £2 million will be pledged by the O’Sullevan charitable trust to six equine welfare charities and other projects.
As for the award it was won for only the second time by one of O’Sullevan’s own calling, a journalist, nine years on from Lord Oaksey, and with Sir Henry Cecil, JP McManus and other turf icons in between.
Hugh McIlvanney usually narrates the voiceover for the winner’s career video reel. This time there he was in person, aged 83 and just a single year into retirement. So vast is the breadth of his amazing tenure in print that even some of the audience would struggle to appreciate its reference points.
A lifetime’s work for the Observer, Sunday Times and others has brought the son of Kilmarnock into the orbit of some fabulously talented sporting figures whose time has long come and gone.
“I’ve had some interesting days with Lester [Piggott],” he said. “I always felt that talking to him was like mining gold with a plastic teaspoon.”
Noting how access to sports stars had changed, McIlvanney recounted the benefit of working for a weekly when covering the Rumble In The Jungle in 1974.
Undefeated world heavyweight champion George Foreman, whose raw power was as fearsome as the writer had witnessed, somehow had been relieved of his title by Muhammad Ali.
Two hours later, McIlvanney and Ken Jones, another of the outstanding sports writers of the time, found themselves in the company of Ali and just three members of his vast entourage. Boxer and hacks chewed the fat for hours. “It gave Ken and I the biggest exclusives of our lives,” said McIlvanney.
No little relish
He also referenced US sports writers AJ Liebling of The New Yorker and Red Smith, who wrote extensively on the US champion John Henry. Here was a horse of conformation so flawed and pedigree so plebeian that a racing career of any kind seemed futile.
Citing Smith with no little relish, McIlvanney recalled: “John Henry was born so far on the wrong side of the tracks that he couldn’t hear the train whistle.”
That economy of use but profound impact is archetypal McIlvanney, so when he said of O’Sullevan that “he may have been the best commentator of any action in sport at his peak” the audience found little difficulty in agreeing.
Look back on a sizzling year of racing in the new edition of the Racing Post Annual, which has 208 colour pages packed with the best stories and pictures of 2017. Order now at racingpost.com/shop or call 01933 304858