Tributes flow after death of broadcaster John McCririck, aged 79

Fri 5 Jul 2019

Racing broadcaster and journalist John McCririck has died aged 79, his family announced on Friday morning.

McCririck – known as ‘Big Mac’ to many in the racing world – was a familiar face on Channel 4’s coverage of the sport for many years, with his career on television spanning four decades.

Married to Jenny in 1971, McCririck was an unmissable character with his deerstalker hat, sideburns and cigar, and thrived at the heart of what he called the “betting jungle”.

A puff of smoke in the winner's enclosure often indicated McCririck wasn't far away
A puff of smoke in the winner's enclosure often indicated McCririck wasn't far away

In 1981, he joined ITV Sport’s horse racing coverage, which then moved to Channel 4, where he would spend more than 25 years at his familiar spot in the betting ring.

He appeared in various other mainstream programmes, including Celebrity Big Brother, before he acrimoniously left Channel 4 Racing in 2012, subsequently losing an age discrimination case made against the station and production company IMG Media Limited.

Prior to his time on television, he had worked for the Sporting Life newspaper and in recent years he had continued to appear on At The Races.

A statement released by his family said: "Award-winning journalist, broadcaster and for many years the face of British horse racing, John McCririck, passed away at a London hospital on Friday, July 5, aged 79.

"John's interest in horse racing and betting began at Harrow where he was the school bookie. On leaving he worked for an illegal street bookmaker then legally on-course where he learned the art of tic-tac, clerking bets and making a book.

"John cut his teeth in racing journalism on 'Formindex', a tipping sheet otherwise known as 'The Golden Guide'. He went on to write for the Sporting Life where he won British Press Awards 'Specialist Writer of the Year' and 'Campaigning Journalist of the Year'.

"John joined ITV in 1981 for Shergar's Derby then became a household name as part of the Channel 4 Racing team when they took over coverage of the sport in 1984.

"His flamboyant broadcasting style from the heart of betting ring proved extremely popular with racing fans and beyond.

"John continued to work for Channel 4 Racing until 2013, as well as satellite channel At The Races.

"In this time he transcended the world of racing, appearing on numerous mainstream TV news and light entertainment programmes including Question Time, The Weakest Link, Celebrity Wife Swap and Celebrity Big Brother in 2005 and 2010.

"Despite suffering ill health in recent months, John continued to make several TV and radio appearances.

"He is survived by Jenny, his wife of 48 years. His funeral will be private."

McCririck and author Jilly Cooper pictured in 2015
McCririck and author Jilly Cooper pictured in 2015

Jim McGrath, a long-time colleague of McCririck's at Channel 4, told Sky Sports Racing: "John was a legend, one of few people who transcended racing.

"If you went anywhere in racing in the 1980s and spoke to people with no interest in racing, they would always ask if you knew him. A lot outside racing knew him but nothing about racing, he was larger than life.

"He was a very good journalist for the Sporting Life. In the later years of his career, he very much went down the media route, but that gets away from the fact that John had expert knowledge and was a very hard worker. He was one of the first in the press room with his figures and stats, which he adored.

"We had very differing opinions, but he cared about the ordinary punter and he did stand up for them."

Another of his Channel 4 colleagues, former champion jockey John Francome, also paid tribute.

"I knew he'd been ill for a while. He was eccentric, incredibly generous - he was brilliant at his job. He was great company and I loved him.

"I feel very sorry for Jenny as they were a great team.

"He reached outside the sport - the two names that were mentioned by people outside racing were Frankie Dettori and Big Mac.

"He had a persona for TV, he was nothing like what you saw on screen, he was a lovely man.

"You'd never want to get into an argument with him because he wouldn't argue with you unless he'd researched it to the nth degree!"

Alice Plunkett also worked with him on Channel 4 Racing for 20 years and spoke warmly of their time together.

“John was just frustratingly brilliant," she said. "Everybody always wanted me to say I didn’t like him, but I loved him very dearly.

“He called me 'the saucy minx’. I was a young upstart and he always said to me to be as rude as I liked on screen as that’s what people want.

“Everything he did on screen he did with a real twinkle and with kindness behind it.

“He was just a genuine supporter of young people, women – weirdly. What people saw and what he actually was were a long away apart. He was great to Tanya (Stevenson), he was great to me and I’ll always be so grateful as to how he looked after me when I started out and knew nothing.

“He was a great journalist. He never, ever came to work unprepared. He was such a worker. All that flap and nonsense was one thing, but he turned up every day with so much background work.

“He knew exactly what was going on. In the end he probably became a caricature of himself. The (Celebrity) Big Brother stuff didn’t do him any favours, but at heart, he was a brilliant journalist.

“He was a consummate professional and passionate about racing."

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