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Alongside his media work, writing for Mirror Group newspapers as well as broadcasting, Wilson was a moderately successful racehorse owner and racing manager for several people, including Sir Clement Freud. He was also a phenomenal form student, said to spend five hours a day poring over race reports, handicap ratings, as well as picking the brains of jockeys and trainers before placing his bets.
It was as a racing presenter that Wilson will best be remembered. If ever there was one to whom the phrase consummate professional should be applied it is Wilson. He covered all the major meetings, and held the Becher’s Brook to Canal Turn spot at every Grand National between 1969 and 1992. Yet for many people, myself included, the most memorable moment came during a Saturday afternoon Grandstand broadcast from Bangor.
For once he was describing the races rather than hosting the coverage. There was a slip up from Wilson, whose commentary went, “And as they come past the stands on the first circuit…(pause) well that is, where the stand would be if there were any at Bangor.” That was a rarity amongst the thousands of races on which he commentated, which were marked by calmness of delivery and accuracy of description.
Wilson waited until he and Sir Peter O’Sullevan had retired before revealing in his autobiography the tension that developed between the two. Wilson had understood O’Sullevan intended to retire in 1983 when he reached the age of 65, and hoped he would step up. Instead, O’Sullevan carried on until 1997, only a matter of weeks before Wilson too hung up his microphone. By then, he felt the BBC was dumbing down its coverage, and a less than harmonious relationship with his successor Clare Balding may have hastened his departure. Nobody at the Corporation had any idea that there were issues, and it never came across on air.
Wilson’s second wife had cause to appreciate the time he spent with the formbook. He studies enabled him to pick out Shergar as the winner of the 1981 Derby when the horse could be backed at odds of 33/1. His investment paid for the engagement ring.
As an author, the essays that make up his “100 Greatest Racehorses” are a delight to read. They cover flat horses from Eclipse through to Dancing Brave and jumpers from Manifesto to Desert Orchid. What a pity that there wasn’t a new version with a Wilson essay on Frankel.