The horse’s champion Sir Peter O’Sullevan dies at 97

Sir Peter O'Sullevan.
Sir Peter O’Sullevan. © Dan Abraham

Britain’s “voice of horse racing” Sir Peter O’Sullevan has died at the age of 97, prompting an outpouring of tributes for the accomplished broadcaster and journalist.

O’Sullevan, who died on Wednesday, was also vice-president of international charity World Horse Welfare, and leaves an extraordinary legacy of improved welfare for millions of horses worldwide.

World Horse Welfare Chief Executive Roly Owers said O’Sullevan had been a tireless supporter since childhood of the charity’s campaign to stop the long-distance transport of horses across Europe for slaughter.  “But not many know that Sir Peter was also the inspiration behind the launch of our international programmes 30 years ago, which have since helped hundreds of thousands of working horses in developing countries around the world,” Owers said.

In 1985, O’Sullevan returned from Morocco distressed by the condition of the horses he saw on the tourist beaches: they were undernourished, their tack was ill-fitting and their feet were in a terrible condition which would have caused them great pain.  Compelled to help them, approached World Horse Welfare (then the ILPH) asking if the charity could ‘do something about it … that would have an immediate effect.’

Shortly afterwards, World Horse Welfare set up its first ever clinic for working horses in Agadir, Morocco, offering saddlery and farriery services as the charity worked with the government and tourist organisations to improve the conditions of the horses.   World Horse Welfare’s international programmes now span the continents of Africa, Latin America and Asia, providing impoverished communities who rely on horses to make their living with horse care advice and discounted or free veterinary care, training on basic farriery and saddlery skills and hands-on care of their horses at dozens of mobile clinics – providing relief and facilitating better care for many thousands of working horses each year.

Royalties from Peter O'Sullevan's updated biography, Calling the Horses, are going to equine welfare charities.
Royalties from Peter O’Sullevan’s updated biography, Calling the Horses, go to equine welfare charities.

O’Sullevan also helped to protect vulnerable horses and ponies in the UK and Europe through his vocal support for campaigns to improve their welfare or prevent their abuse.  He was a strong advocate for Minimum Values laws in the UK which protect ponies of a low financial value from indiscriminate export and continued this support through World Horse Welfare’s ‘Going Unchecked’ campaign which seeks to ensure these and other laws protecting horses from abuse are enforced.

His decades-long support for the charity’s campaign to stop the needlessly long journeys across Europe endured by horses destined for slaughter has been instrumental, particularly in achieving the Written Declaration of MEPs in 2010  calling for an end to the suffering – believing as the charity does that horses should be transported ‘on the hook, not on the hoof’.   His support has helped to reduce the number of live horses transported for up to days on end from 165,000 in 2001 to around 54,000 in 2012 – which Sir Peter would say is still “54,000 too many.”

While his vocal support is priceless, O’Sullevan also used his influence to fund these causes. The Peter O’Sullevan Charitable Trust was established 18 years ago and has raised around £4 million through its annual Awards Lunch which has been split evenly between six charities, of which World Horse Welfare is one.

World Horse Welfare Chairman Barry Johnson said: “Our hearts go out to Sir Peter’s family, friends and associates who know so well that he was a one-off, a man of extraordinary ability and generosity.  The impact of Sir Peter in racing is legendary, but he deserves similar – if not greater – recognition for his influence in advancing the welfare of horses including through his lifetime of unstinting support for World Horse Welfare – and the four million pounds donated to welfare charities through his eponymous Trust.

“Racing has a huge impact on the image and welfare of horses, not just in the UK but worldwide.  Sir Peter used that influence to improve the lives of horses, and indeed and other animals.  He was a stalwart proponent of the highest standards of horse welfare in racing, for instance lending his support to a reduction of the use of the whip.  His presence will be greatly missed, but his impact is indelible and World Horse Welfare will continue to build upon his legacy as the greatest champion of the horse in living memory,” Johnson said.

Recently retired jockey AP McCoy was among those to post a brief tribute on Twitter, saying: “Sir Peter O’Sullevan, the epitome of class. The most distinguished and eloquent voice of racing. He was an amazing man. RIP”

Clare Balding said: Incomparable, irreplaceable, indelible. Sir Peter will never be matched and never forgotten. The ultimate pro and the definition of a gentleman.”

Gary Lineker said: Saddened to hear of the passing of Peter O’Sullevan. Indisputably one of the greatest sporting commentators of our time.

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