John Hunt, Grand National Commentator

Tue, Mar 23, 2010

Betting People

John Hunt, Grand National Commentator

John Hunt

He’ll call the Grand National winner home for millions on the BBC. His face is familiar to At The Races viewers everywhere and his voice has been heard on racecourses throughout the land but how did top course commentator John Hunt get the racing bug, what first got him betting and how did he go from Kilburn copper to calling the world’s greatest race?

I meet up with John Hunt some hours before racing on Queen Mother Champion Chase day at Cheltenham. We breeze up to John’s BBC commentary perch  and everyone we pass en route is greeted with a jovial quip or a hearty ‘morning!’ If he’s nervous before another big day’s racing, he’s not showing it. In fact, he couldn’t be happier.

‘Isn’t that fantastic?’ beams the happy Hunt as we take in the wonderful vista of the Cheltenham courses beneath us and Cleeve Hill beyond. Where does all this enthusiasm come from?

‘Dad played a massive part. He was sports mad, not just about racing but loved his football as well and I could see at quite an early stage the buzz he was getting out of it and even as a young boy I know I must have felt “I’ll have a bit of that as well” you know, happy to go along for the ride.’

‘I suppose my first trip to the races was Sandown. There was a bomb scare and I thought it was just absolutely great. What drama you know, horse racing, betting, drunk men…and a bombscare! What a great sport.’

‘I was very aware how most people lived their lives. School teachers, vicars et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Here at the races you could be a little bit more seedy couldn’t you, it was fun. Coming back to Cheltenham reminds you of that. Win lose or draw having a few pints to round the day off with. It’s a nice distraction isn’t it. The essence of a festival is to lose yourself a little bit. Lose yourself in a little bit of madness which never does anybody any harm.’

Hearing John talk about his first heady hit from racing reminds me again of the special appeal of the sport but I’m also struck by the bond between the young boy and his father. A shared passion between the boy and his dad, a shared language and as it turned out a shared bet from time to time too.

‘Pay day for my paper round was Saturday morning and sometimes my pay packet came in handy for a little Saturday morning investment. In fairness to Dad I always got it back with a little bit of interest but I used to love it. I used to pick the teams on the pools coupon too, you know maybe pick 10 homes and betting was there from the very outset.’

Understanding the thrill of a bet adds to the credibility of his commentaries but when it comes to feeling the pressure of punters, especially in running punters, hanging on his every word that’s something that there’s clearly no room for.

‘No one wants to make mistakes. No one wants to say something’s fallen when it hasn’t. No one wants to miss the favourite falling but you know that hasn’t happened too often in my career and I don’t put myself under additional pressure assuming that it might.

‘I like to bet. You just have to make the decision if you’re going to play that kind of game it’s your decision and your choice. I think if you’re going to go and back or lay something on the basis of what someone else is telling you, you deserve to lose your money.’

‘The Grand National is the ultimate. It’s the most intense ten minutes of my working year. It’s absolutely fantastic. That’s the best race.’

Chatting with John there’s no doubting his love for racing and the extent to which the enjoyment of betting, of winning and losing, intertwines with the sport itself. What’s less clear is how on earth he ended up where he is now given the direction his career path initially took. John followed his father into the NHS, training as a nurse, but jumped public service codes to train as a police officer. As a uniformed bobby John patrolled the mean streets of Kilburn, pausing regularly outside bookies to catch key snippets of commentary.

His girlfriend (now wife) Carol lived in Harrow in those days, the locale of Ladbrokes head office, and it was she who spotted the small ad in the local rag that was advertising for trainees for Ladbrokes in-house broadcasting unit. Again, it was a keen sportsman who offered guidance;

‘This lovely man who was my Chief Inspector at the time, Alan Bertram, was an Olympic shot-put coach – loved his sport – looked me in the eye and said to me “who won the Grand National in 1984?” I said “Hello Dandy”. He said go and do it and if it doesn’t work out in six months we’ll get you back in. It was an easy gamble to take. The classic free bet.’

Life at Ladbrokes was mundane to start with, involving fetching coffees for Derek Thompson and Angus Loughran amongst other degradations but within three years John had secured a trial day for the racecourse commentators rosta.  Coming through it with flying colours he secured a short term contract, giving him an initial hundred days of work and the rest, as they say, is history. What advice would John give for others wanting to break into that line of work?

‘Somewhat surprising to me is that there aren’t really lots of youngsters, you know, seventeen and eighteen year olds that are wanting a go. The media side has exploded. I see a lot of graduates who leave well educated but with very little drive. If you’ve got that little bit of extra about you, then use it. Knock a few doors down and if the doors don’t open, keep knocking because you’ll get your chance if you’re determined enough.’

Values that might be reflected in his choice of commentating hero. No room for Sir Peter O’Sullevan in that category. Hunt’s vote goes to Barry Davies. The voice of Match of the Day and of nine World Cups. A voice that brought us  countless classic footballing moments, the Olympics, Wimbledon and more besides. The voice, you might say, of the people.

Hunt’s racing fans might not realise that football was his first love and that even now he’s ‘knocking a few doors down’ to get commentary work in that sport.

‘I’m at the stage of life where I want to do things for my own personal gratification and I’ve been lucky enough this year to do about eight or nine games for Five Live and I absolutely love it.’

The appetite for fresh challenges is impressive and explains his anticipation of another Grand National call just around the corner;

‘The Grand National is the ultimate. It’s the most intense ten minutes of my working year. It’s absolutely fantastic. That’s the best race.’

It’s been a strange journey perhaps from pounding the beat on Kilburn High Road to calling them home from crossing the Melling Road but it’s a journey he’s clearly happy to have made.

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