The author and 'Big Mac' 20odd years after the autograph

It’s been two years since John McCririck passed away. That time seems to have gone by so fast, but I suppose we have all been preoccupied by a pandemic. Goodness knows what ‘Big Mac’ would have made of it all. As is often the case, people do not realise what they have until it’s gone, John McCririck left a huge chasm in racing. 

He’d already become the face of the betting ring on TV by the time I got into racing in around 1982. I should rephrase that, I got into betting first, but the love of horseracing soon followed. If I’m honest, which of course I am, I was fascinated by the betting ring even more than the racing. You must realise that back in those days there were no TVs in betting shops, no dedicated racing channels. The only glimpse most people got of a racecourse was on Saturday’s and big meetings when racing was on the telly.

I was fascinated by the fact there was a betting ring and bookmakers on course. I’d already been seduced by the seedy nature of betting shops but never been racing. I’d always been brought up to think that anyone who went into a bookie was a never-do-well. The only exception being annual 50p each-way on the Grand National. Of course, my mum was right, most people that frequented our local betting shop were indeed wastrels, but when you are 17 anywhere you aren’t allowed to be yet has an allure. The betting ring though, that seemed a whole new world. I loved the look of all that hustle and bustle, it was boisterous with loads of money flying around. Just those few tantalising glimpses every week with John McCririck shouting the odds being mobbed by equally enthusiastic racegoers was enough to get me wanting to go. 

1985 racecard from Sandown Park event

The first and second times I went racing, to Cheltenham for the Mackeson and Chepstow for the Welsh Grand National in 1983 there was no sign of Big Mac. It wasn’t until 1985 and I was a squaddie learning to fix Army vehicles in the then barrack town of Bordon in Hampshire that I went to a racecourse where he was in action. It was Sandown Park the 30th November 1985. I remember the date because I still have the race card that I asked him to sign. I even joined that throng behind him when he was on camera hoping that someone watching back home in Tiverton would spot that I’d ‘made it’. 

It wasn’t until 1989 when I left the Army that I actually started working in the betting ring. Even then there weren’t many places that we went that he did too. He was omnipresent though, always the punters pal and namedropped should a backer feel aggrieved by an on-course bookie. Fast forward almost 20 years to 2008 and I started working with Turf TV and I started occasionally working alongside John in the betting ring. When he and the team were live on air I’d be there keeping him updated with the prices and then give him the starting prices as the race was off. It was then that I realised what a real professional he was. He’d spend hours writing notes in tiny writing on his race cards to refer to on air. He was also exactly the same off camera as he was on, maybe just that on-camera was an amplified version. 

It would only be when spending time with him down in the ring that it became apparent just how popular he was. He’d pose for photos all afternoon, mouth wide open, cigar in the air, the people asking for pictures were nearly always ladies too and he’d never refuse a photo though he wasn’t keen on signing anything. When the working day was over, he was always very polite and thanked you for helping out but you didn’t expect to be his best mate. In the press room he was always there to work, head down in his racecard, loyal wife Jenny by his side.

Our paths crossed further and for the first time in a social environment when I started to work for Star Sports. Part of my job was to make hilarious little videos of John and Star’s owner Ben Keith before and after racing. They are probably still on YouTube, John goading Ben if he’d lost money, it was excellent to be part of it. As John and Jenny were very friendly with Ben they often joined in the sort of social events Ben liked to throw, a big meal after racing at one of the bigger meetings. 

When I started making the #BettingPeople series of interviews neither Ben whose brainchild it was, nor I ever thought it would take off like it did. Once it was apparent the series was becoming popular Big Mac was always going to be one of the crown jewels. He was probably the only horseracing personality that almost everyone in the UK would be aware of. John was already visibly in failing health when I went to his and Jenny’s London mews house to interview him in April 2018. They were both immensely welcoming and helpful to this nervous interviewer armed with just a tripod, i-phone and microphones. I even got some good advice from my interviewee. I was still only in my first year of conducting interviews. I was going to start my questioning from the start but John gave me  a bollocking he only he could. It was great advice, he said I should always start with something punchy which is rarely the beginning, so that’s what we did and hopefully I have done ever since. 

I don’t think I saw John on a racecourse again after that memorable afternoon in his and Jenny’s company. He passed away 15 months later, on 5th July 2019. Looking back on my little journey though racing it really was rather special to have been granted a very personal interview with the man I’d been inspired by back when I was a kid. He may have been viewed by some as out of date as the tic-tac that he used to gesticulate prices as he spoke in TV, in some ways he possibly was. Make no mistake though, John McCririck transcended our insular world of horseracing and became a household name, something very few have been able to do and invaluable to the sport. He’s still sadly missed. 

racecard signed by John McCririck

Simon Nott

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