Frankie Dettori paid tribute to a “larger than life character” who was “very knowledgeable about racing” following the news of John McCririck’s death at the age of 79.
Dettori is one of the genuine household names in racing, a tag that McCririck also carried, and the pair enjoyed many moments together over the years, as they struck up a good friendship.
“I met him for the first time when I was very young. I was 16 and I was an apprentice. He was a big part of my racing life since I started,” Dettori told PA.
“He was very flamboyant and controversial, but I always got on really well with him. We did a few things together and he will be missed.
“He did put on a bit of a show, but underneath it all he worked very hard and was very knowledgeable about racing.
“He was a larger than life character. I’m very sad for Jenny, his wife.”
Multiple champion jumps rider Sir Anthony McCoy added his memories of ‘Big Mac’.
“John was just about the most recognisable figure in horse racing when I came to England, people had only just heard of Frankie Dettori, so it was John or Lester Piggott,” said McCoy.
“That says a lot about him to say that he wasn’t a trainer, owner or jockey. He had attitude, he had a voice and said what he thought, he wasn’t frightened of upsetting somebody.
“I don’t think I was ever on the end of one of his jockey bashings – thankfully.
“There’s a good chance in this day and age, with everything needing to be so politically correct, he might not have been the great character on TV now that he was in the 80s and 90s.
“You don’t get away now with saying what Big Mac or John Francome did, so for that reason it’s a lot harder now and more restrictive than then, but back in the day that team did a great job of representing horse racing.
“They made it as easy and enjoyable to watch as possible, but the world is changing.
“He was very good at promoting the sport, he was a very bright man, well educated and, while he had an opinion, what you have to say is he tried to be constructive. He was a punters’ man, that’s what he was there for.
“I thought he was a bit shy off camera, quietly spoken. At first he was the sort of man you’d have to go up to to talk to rather than the other way and I used to think it was arrogance or ignorance, but soon realised he was a bit shy.
“I never watched Big Brother, but flicked it on a couple of times when he was in there and when he was walking around in those white pants he certainly left an impression!”
Derek Thompson worked with McCririck for over 20 years on Channel 4 Racing and afforded him the highest compliment.
“Apart from the great guy that he was on TV, he was the most professional guy I ever worked with,” said Thompson.
“He did everything twice, in two racecards, and had two watches. When I asked him why he said, ‘in case I lose a racecard and in case my watch stops’, and looked at me as if I’d asked an incredibly stupid question.
“He was man who had a love of racing, he was a former journalist of the year and whenever I was in trouble on live TV, I could go to him and he would help me out.
“He also came up with the phrase ‘The Morning Line’ after Channel 4 had been asked to come up with a programme on a Saturday morning.
“Off camera he was a bit different, a real gentleman, a lovely man – I stayed with him and The Booby, as we called his wife Jenny, they had a nice lifestyle.
“He put racing on the map. Racing owes him a big debt because he was the voice, face, style and enigma of British racing.”
Broadcaster Nick Luck joined the Channel 4 team at a young age – but rather than be intimated by McCririck he was almost taken under his wing.
“You might think with him being this massive character that he’d be intimidating, but he was actually incredibly kind and very encouraging when I started, and a lot of people will say the same thing.
“What was really notable about starting on Channel 4 in my early 20s, when John was the central figure to the team, was how much he encouraged the younger presenters and how polite and kind he was to the crew, who all really liked him.
“While he was this ebullient personality, fundamentally he was just a very decent human being.
“I’m not saying he was a pussycat, far from it, he had a great sense of mischief which he revelled in. It’s odd to think he’s gone, because even though we knew he’d been ill he was one of those you thought would go on forever, he was indestructible. It’s very sad.
“If you walked in to do The Morning Line he would always be the first person on the set, some would run on five minutes before the titles, but he’d be there two hours before and always well prepared.
“He kept records of races going back before the internet did and sometimes he’d have ones the internet didn’t. He was a great journalist before his TV career and you got the impression he’d have won awards in whatever he ended up doing – racing was lucky he chose that.”
Bookmaker Barry Dennis was a close friend of McCririck and a popular figure on The Morning Line with his ‘Barry’s Bismarck’ slot.
He said: “We were great friends and I’m even tearful about it now funnily enough. We spent lots of good times together at cricket and at social functions all over the world.
“He was very soft and caring. If my wife was ill he would be ringing up and asking how she is. The buffoonery was his television image and it worked. He was a character.
“The best two people known in racing were Frankie Dettori and John McCririck. They are the two people in racing that everybody knows. On television we had the love-hate relationship, but really it was all love.
“He loved entertaining me at The Ivy and we used to walk in there as bold as brass.
“He was always a guest of my box at Lord’s and we had great times outside of television. On television it was a double act.
“Barry’s Bismark started a long time ago, and John used to berate me and hope they won just so he could have a go at me!
“He was a great character and I loved him. He will be sorely missed.”
Cornelius Lysaght, BBC Radio Five racing broadcaster, was another to salute McCririck.
He said: “People have always come up and said, ‘you know the bloke with the whiskers and the deerstalker that waves his arms around, what is he really like, is he really like that in real life?’, and the answer to that question was ‘no’.
“He was best known for his flamboyance and colour, but he was very knowledgeable. He knew his stuff and knew the industry inside out. He batted for the industry at every turn and he batted for punters at every turn.
“If he saw what he thought was an injustice, for punters in particular, he wanted to get after that.
“People forget that although he is well known for his television appearances on Channel Four, before that he was an award-winning investigative journalist.
“He was very successful and won some prestigious awards when with The Sporting Life.
“Of course, he knew how to be the colourful, flamboyant, noisy one, but I remember when the racing on Radio Five won a big award about 15 years ago, who was the first person on the phone the following day saying, ‘that was absolutely brilliant’ – John.
“He was a very generous colleague. If you ever needed help with anything he would be like, ‘when do you want me, where do you want me’, and he absolutely loved it.
“One of my abiding memories of him was on a lovely, sunny Eclipse weekend and a whole lot of people on a stag do dressed as him had the full whiskers and deerstalkers on and he stood in the middle of them with his big cigar and made that funny face he always made.
“He was not just the clown he loved to play – he was a very serious, decent, kind guy. He has some old-fashioned views which made things difficult in recent years, but he was a big plus for British racing.
“It is a big loss for racing, as he raised its profile. The three best known people in racing in recent years have been Frankie Dettori, the Queen, particularly at Royal Ascot, and John McCririck – say no more.”
Former Channel 4 team member and now lead ITV Racing commentator Richard Hoiles said: “He was a little bit misunderstood from his screen image.
“Everything was always black or white with him and he would argue a point vehemently and would drive you absolutely nuts, then as soon as you came off air he would say, ‘that was great television’, and smile and you were left absolutely infuriated!
“He was a very good journalist underneath it all and was very supportive of the younger ones on the team. You had to cut your teeth with him and fight your corner, but if you did he would thoroughly enjoy it. He was far more supportive and encouraging than it might have seemed.
“His ability to pick a story was outstanding. Every now and then when he wasn’t there I would have to do the papers and I’d be swamped, but he could seemingly have this big pile of text and would immediately know something that would be of interest to the viewer.
“He was never confrontational with people who came up to chat with him, he was always self deprecating. He was a larger than life character, but a good part of that Channel 4 team.”