Journalist and broadcaster John McCririck has died aged 79, his family has announced.
McCririck – known as ‘Big Mac’ to many in the racing world – was a familiar face on Channel 4’s coverage of the sport for many years, with his career on television spanning four decades.
Married to Jenny in 1971, McCririck was an unmissable character with his deerstalker hat, sideburns and cigar, and thrived at the heart of what he called the “betting jungle”.
In 1981, he joined ITV Sport’s horse racing coverage, which then moved to Channel 4, where he would spend more than 25 years at his familiar spot in the betting ring.
He appeared in various other mainstream programmes, including Celebrity Big Brother, before he acrimoniously left Channel 4 Racing in 2012, subsequently losing an age discrimination case made against the station and production company IMG Media Limited.
A statement released by his family said: “Award-winning journalist, broadcaster and for many years the face of British horse racing, John McCririck, passed away at a London hospital on Friday, July 5 aged 79.
“John’s interest in horse racing and betting began at Harrow where he was the school bookie. On leaving he worked for an illegal street bookmaker then legally on-course where he learned the art of tic-tac, clerking bets and making a book.
“John cut his teeth in racing journalism on ‘Formindex’, a tipping sheet otherwise known as ‘The Golden Guide’. He went on to write for the Sporting Life where he won British Press Awards, ‘Specialist Writer of the Year’ and ‘Campaigning Journalist of the Year’.
“John joined ITV in 1981 for Shergar’s Derby then became a household name as part of the Channel 4 Racing team when they took over coverage of the sport in 1984.
“His flamboyant broadcasting style from the heart of the betting ring proved extremely popular with racing fans and beyond.
“John continued to work for Channel 4 Racing until 2013, as well as satellite channel At The Races.
“In this time he transcended the world of racing, appearing on numerous mainstream TV news and light entertainment programmes including Question Time, The Weakest Link, Celebrity Wife Swap and Celebrity Big Brother in 2005 and 2010.
“Despite suffering ill health in recent months, John continued to make several TV and radio appearances.
“He is survived by Jenny, his wife of 48 years. His funeral will be private.”
Matthew Imi, Chief Executive, Sky Sports Racing and At The Races, said: “We are deeply saddened to hear of John’s passing and send our most sincere condolences to Jenny.
“John was at the height of his powers when he joined ATR back in 2004 and quickly became a much-loved member of our team.
“Always in possession of an opinion and never one to shy away from the tough questions, he occupied a unique position in sports broadcasting and was a huge asset for racing.
“Charismatic, articulate and knowledgeable he helped expose the sport to a wider audience. John was kind, generous and renowned amongst his colleagues for being supportive and magnanimous.
“He will be sorely missed by us all.”
The British Horseracing Authority paid tribute to McCririck, tweeting: “We are saddened to hear of the passing of John McCririck.
“Throughout a lengthy and colourful career, one thing was always clear – his enduring passion and love for the sport of horse racing.
“He was a recognisable figure and resonated with the wider public. Our condolences go to his family.”
Former champion jockey John Francome, a long-time colleague of McCririck’s at Channel 4, paid tribute to “a lovely man”.
He told PA: “He was eccentric, incredibly generous – he was brilliant at his job. He was great company and I loved him.
“I knew he’d been ill for a while. I feel very sorry for Jenny as they were a great team.
“He reached outside the sport – the two names that were mentioned by people outside racing were Frankie Dettori and Big Mac.
“He had a persona for TV, he was nothing like what you saw on screen, he was a lovely man.
“You’d never want to get into an argument with him because he wouldn’t argue with you unless he’s researched it to the nth degree!”
Jim McGrath, who was also part of the Channel 4 team, told Sky Sports Racing: “John was a legend, one of the few people who transcended racing.
“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.
“He was a very good journalist for the Sporting Life. In the later years of his career, he very much went down the media route, but that gets away from the fact that John had expert knowledge and was a very hard worker. He was one of the first in the press room with his figures and stats, which he adored.
“We had very differing opinions, but he cared about the ordinary punter and he did stand up for them.”