Hallandale Beach, FL— As hard as this might be to believe, John McCririck, who died last week at 79, actually was more than met the eye. My first meeting with him was momentous, as was the occasion, the inaugural Breeders’ Cup championships, seven seven-figure races on the first Saturday in November, 1984.
The event also marked my first visit to Hollywood Park. I was part of a team covering the event for Newsday. I also grabbed sound-bytes with legendary horsemen and co-wrote several scripts for the first Breeders’ Cup Highlight Film, the reel voiced-over by John Forsythe. It was a heady time, I was awestruck.
One day during Breeders’ Cup week, the late, great Joe Hirsch, executive columnist for Daily Racing Form, invited Toni and me to join him for dinner. “We’ll be meeting somebody at the restaurant,” Hirsch added. We had arrived; being invited to dinner by Mr. Hirsch was a rite of passage for turf writers.
As I kept busy with work, Toni attended a reception that afternoon celebrating the inaugural in a section of Hollywood Park appropriate to the occasion, a portion of the clubhouse known as The Pavilion of the Stars.
Marje Everett, “the Racing Lady of Chicago,” also owned Hollywood and loved playing host to racing’s in-crowd, Cary Grant and Gregory Peck among them. As Toni passed Grant they were close enough for her to rub against his arm. She loves telling the story about how she once “rubbed elbows” with Cary Grant.
That morning I working the backstretch awaiting my first glimpse of the European horses. It’s a bigger thing now, but more impactful that first Breeders’ Cup.
At one time or another, every racing fan from London to LA has seen McCririck on TV for international broadcasts. He was, of course, Europe’s most celebrated television tout for Channel 4 Racing, after beginning his career as a turf writer, an award-winning journalist for The Sporting Life.
Somewhat new to the European-horse experience, as were many of my colleagues, I finally worked up the courage to approach this legendary figure, Sir Muttonchops himself, asking: “What’s the most important thing you can tell me about European grass racing?”
The ever loquacious Mr. McCririck offered only, “the ground.”
Toni and I went back to the hotel to freshen up and get a little spiffy for dinner. Hirsch was taking us to world famous Chasen’s, in my mind the West Coast equivalent to New York’s Elaine’s with a better menu. The uptown Manhattan haunt was more of what Jimmy Breslin would call “a good drinkin’ bar.”
When we arrived, Joe and the mystery guest were well into their first cocktail. “You know John McCririck,” said Hirsch with characteristic nonchalance. “Of course,” I said, too embarrassed to admit I had only spoken with him once—that morning. The best way to describe that dinner? Entertaining.
If I was OK with Mr. Hirsch, then I would be OK with McCririck. Throughout dinner John regaled us with stories about “the booby,” his term of endearment for Jenny, his wife of 48 years. When the conversation turned to horses he went into TV mode, signaling betting odds with his fingers as is done over there. Think Wall Street trading floor for bookmakers.
When Toni returned to the table in time for dessert, she whispered to me that Gregory Peck was sitting in the front at a table for four–not quite elbow-brushing distance. But seeing real-life Cary Grant and Gregory Peck on the same day we supped at Chasen’s? Nice work if you can get it.
John and I got a little friendlier over the years but, ever in demand, he always seemed hurried and a little distracted, but his warmth and generosity of spirit more than compensated.
Meeting people like McCririck made loving the racing scene more than I could have hoped. It wasn’t all that many years after starting out on the second floor of West Side office building where The Armstrong Daily, aka “the scratch sheet,” was printed, learning how to make a betting line from Vince Mangano, an acknowledged master.
Come November, I will raise a glass to McCririck if fortunate enough to return to SoCal to cover the 2019 Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita Park. After a hiatus of seven years, it will be my 28th Breeders’ Cup, missing Alphabet Soup’s Classic in 1996, and not since seeing Drosselmeyer in 2011.
But something will be missing. Requiescet in pace my good man.