John McCririck, the garrulous racing pundit who became a household name as the flamboyantly attired face of British racing coverage, has died at the age of 79.
Typically clad in a trademark deerstalker hat and clutching a cigar, his gesticulating style was known even to many of those who were uninterested in the sport, about which he started broadcasting in the 1980s for ITV.
McCririck, born in Surbiton, Surrey, worked variously as a waiter, bookmaker and as an award-winning journalist before going on to televised racing punditry.
In 1981, he joined ITV Sport’s horse racing coverage, which later moved to Channel 4. He spent decades at his familiar spot in the betting ring, where his interactions with members of the public came with an air of unpredictability.
Other television appearances included a stint on Celebrity Big Brother, before he was axed by Channel 4 Racing in 2012, subsequently losing a high-profile age discrimination case against the station and the production company IMG Media Limited.
After the loss of his case against Channel 4 McCririck described himself as a pariah, but he was also a divisive figure among members of the public, particularly for his comments about women.
He insisted during an employment tribunal hearing that he had played the “pantomime villain” later in his career on shows such as Celebrity Big Brother and that provocative statements, some of them sexist, were part of a role he played, especially when on reality TV shows.
He said: “Because Captain Hook is horrible to Peter Pan and kids in Peter Pan, it doesn’t mean the actor playing him goes around abusing kids in the street. All this is a pantomime villain thing that Channel 4 encouraged.”
McCririck, who is survived by Jenny, his wife of 48 years, died on Friday at a London hospital, according to a statement issued by his family.
The son of parents based in the Channel Islands, his interest in racing and betting began when he became a pupil at Harrow, where he was the school bookie. After graduating, there was a failed attempt at joining the diplomatic service and a short-lived period as a waiter at the Dorchester hotel.
He worked for an illegal street bookmaker and then legally on-course, where he learned the art of tic-tac, clerking bets and making a book. His entry point into racing journalism was with Formindex, a tipping sheet otherwise known as the Golden Guide, in advance of writing for the Sporting Life, where he won British Press awards including specialist writer of the year and campaigning journalist of the year.
His first appearance for ITV came in 1981, when the celebrated horse Shergar won the Epsom Derby. Along with Channel 4 Racing, he also worked for the satellite channel At the Races.
“Despite suffering ill health in recent months, John continued to make several TV and radio appearances,” said the family statement.
Among the tributes paid to him on Friday, Ascot Racecourse said: “He was an unmistakable presence in racing, and one of the most impactful broadcasters of his generation.”
Jim McGrath, a long-time colleague at Channel 4, described McCririck as a legend and one of few people who transcended racing.
He told Sky Sports: “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. We had very differing opinions, but he cared about the ordinary punter and he did stand up for them.”
The Sky Sports Racing presenter Alex Hammond tweeted: “Dreadfully sad to hear of the passing of John McCririck. We had many fond times working together & he was one of a kind. A true journalist with a strong work ethic.”
Another Channel 4 colleague, the former champion jockey John Francome, said: “He reached outside the sport – the two names that were mentioned by people outside racing were Frankie Dettori and Big Mac.”
Francome added: “He had a persona for TV, he was nothing like what you saw on screen, he was a lovely man.”