Farewell Croc - Five Years Too Late?

It isn’t very often it can be said a single individual  has had a major impact in their chosen profession, but it is something Aussie Jim McGrath, aka The Croc,  can justifiably claim.

Back in 1984 British racecourse commentaries were generally bland affairs, usually delivered by plummy voiced ex-military types and heaven forbid any emotion or passion be shown in the delivery.

Then, at that year’s Ebor meeting, a “guest” commentator called a few races. A young thirty something Australian who had made a name for himself in Hong Kong was invited to call a few races.

No plummy received pronunciation here but an Australian twang and a lively, more passionate style of delivery. Ears were pricked and the calls of Jim McGrath attracted the attention of many followers of the sport as many realised the sport could be made to sound exciting and enthralling.

Commentators could be passionate in their calling.

Needless to say he was soon picking up more and more gigs. His arrival also led to the introduction of a new style of commentator, gone were days of plummy majors and it was a case of hello to regional accents as younger, more passionate voices, were introduced to the commentary rota.

It’s quite likely the racing commentary style in the UK would have eventually changed without McGrath’s arrival but he was undoubtedly the catalyst for change and the timing of his arrival ensured we now have the likes of Simon Holt and Richard Hoiles gracing our commentary boxes.

It was no surprise McGrath became the heir apparent to the doyen of commentators, Peter O’Sullevan and when Sir Peter, as he was shortly to become, retired in 1997 McGrath was his obvious and rightful successor.

Unfortunately race commentating is a job which requires a sharp mind an immense concentration and as time moves inexorably on it becomes more difficult.

A combination of advancing years and lifestyle meant McGrath wasn’t, in recent years, as sharp as he once was and sadly his standard of commentating declined. He could still pull off the occasional brilliant commentary but he began making mistakes.

I recall a couple of meetings in 2012 where he was calling. One, at Plumpton, involved a six runner contest where he still managed to completely mess up the order of the runners. The other, at Warwick, where he managed to completely miss a fast finishing runner. Only picking the horse up in the dying strides.
McGrath was one of the five commentators placed under review by the Commentators Committee in 2012 and, arguably, was the only one to genuinely justify being under review.
Instead of taking the strong hint he may be past his best, McGrath started throwing his toys very publicly out of his pram and began threatening legal action – contrast that with the quiet dignity, shown in public , of fellow reviewees   Iain MacKenzie and Darren Owen, who got on doing their jobs and showing they were more than capable of doing their jobs well.
I’m not sure if it is ego but there seems to be a tendency of those in the public eye to carry on longer than they should.
It’s true of many politicians. In the world of show business someone like Bruce Forsyth is a prime example.

Of course McGrath isn’t the first caller to hang in longer than he should. Even the great O’Sullevan arguably went on a few years longer than he should, although for me the worse example was the great Peter Bromley.

Bromley was BBC Radios racing commentator for over 40 years and was as iconic as O’Sullevan.   

He did wind his commentary work down towards the end and it is said he wanted to retire in 1999, his 40th anniversary with BBC Radio and his 70th birthday but he was persuaded to stay on a couple of years by the BBC so he could call 200 classics.
He should have stuck with his original plan.
In those days I had a “real” job and I couldn’t always get Cheltenham Week off so I had to listen to commentary on the radio.
Listening to Bromley’s final Festival in 2001 almost had me in tears – it was clear he had lost his talent and ability and it was heart wrenching to hear him struggling to produce a coherent commentary.
The trouble is when talented professionals stay on past their peak they become remembered as much for their decline as for their prime performances.
McGrath was, by and large, an excellent commentator and he is still an excellent writer. Like or loath his commentary style he changed British racing commentary for the better.
I wish him well in the future, I will think back to his halcyon days but will still wish his final call had been five years ago when he was nearer the top of his game, rather than yesterday at Ascot.

The expression “always leave them wanting more” is variously attributed to PT Barnum and Walt Disney,  it doesn’t matter who first said it, however it is an expression those in the public eye, including commentators, should take heed of.

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