Racing People 3: Julian Wilson

Julian Wilson 1940-2014

Julian Wilson 1940-2014

Racing has lost one of its great commentators with the death of Julian Wilson yesterday at the age of 73. He had battled with cancer for several years. Wilson was involved with racing in many different ways over his life, starting by betting when a schoolboy at Harrow, and concluding with writing his autobiography “Some You Win” following his retirement from the microphone in 1997 after more than 30 years describing the sport.

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.

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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"julian wilson 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.

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1 reply
  1. David Varnam says:

    Julian was, indeed, the consummate professional. I had no idea that he and Peter O’Sullevan had such a marked falling out, nor that he and Clare Balding were not the best of friends. Perhaps it is a measure of the progress that Clare has made since heading up Channel 4 racing that ‘unprofessional’ is certainly not an adjective that I would apply to her on-screen appearances. Will we think of the current crop of commentators and presenters in the same way as we view Wilson and O’Sullevan? Somehow I doubt it.


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