John Hanmer, linchpin of the BBC’s Grand National commentary team for more than three decades – obituary

Hanmer at Ascot - ed byrne
Hanmer at Ascot - ed byrne

John Hanmer, who has died aged 82, was an admirably unflappable racing commentator whose distinctive gravelly tones reached their widest audience when he picked up the commentary as the runners crossed the Melling Road during the Grand National at Aintree, which he commentated on for more than three decades.

Hanmer’s principal role at the BBC was to act as a “spotter” for Peter O’Sullevan and later Jim McGrath, and his asthmatic whispers could often be heard in the background of their commentaries, picking up the fallers or horses that seemed to be making significant progress from the rear or middle of the field.

A consummate professional, the depth of knowledge that he acquired of racing colours and horses was second to none. He also did the job of paddock commentator for the BBC, alongside Jimmy Lindley.

After the televised races had been shown on Grandstand, Hanmer would generally pick up the microphone for the remaining races, most memorably when he ended up calling the last three races at Ascot in 1996 on the day that Frankie Dettori pulled off the incredible feat of riding all seven winners in the card.

After Peter O’Sullevan had done the first four races live, he went off for a drink in the BBC box, whereupon Julian Wilson suggested Hanmer take his place calling the races, which were to be recorded until Dettori got beaten.

“I had seen Fujiyama Crest [Dettori’s seventh ride] run many times,” recalled Hanmer, “and he looked a very reluctant beast with just glimpses of form. Dettori, though, was on fire, filled it with confidence and rode it to make it think it was a good horse. He was always like that, brilliant if he was hot, useless if he was cold.

“He is a bit more mature now but in those days he was either one or the other. He had them well strung out coming out of Swinley Bottom and only then did people start to think he might win. Pat Eddery gave the second a very hard race, he did not like being beaten. Up in the commentary box, I was very remote from everything, I was not really conscious of the crowd.”

The BBC commentary team, l-r, John Hanmer, Mick Fitzgerald and Jim McGrath in Liverpool for the Grand National meeting, April 2010 - Hugh Routledge/Shutterstock
The BBC commentary team, l-r, John Hanmer, Mick Fitzgerald and Jim McGrath in Liverpool for the Grand National meeting, April 2010 - Hugh Routledge/Shutterstock

At the Grand National, because of the unusual size of the course, there was always a danger, even in the mid-afternoon light, that the jockeys’ colours would become an indistinguishable blur as they jumped the fences on the far side of the course from the commentary box in the grandstand.

Consequently it became standard practice for various television and radio commentators to be strategically placed around the course to give the millions of worldwide viewers the best possible coverage. Hanmer was generally positioned in a high tower in the centre of the course, and on both circuits he would pick up the commentary as the runners came back over the Melling Road and take them over the next few fences before crossing to Peter O’Sullevan in the grandstand.

However, in 2001 bad weather caused the power to fail suddenly at Becher’s just before the race, so Hanmer had to do Tony O’Hehir’s legs as well as his own, which essentially meant calling the bulk of the race, eventually won by Red Marauder.

“It was a heroic performance,” recalled his BBC colleague Jim McGrath. “It was a very difficult commentary to pull off and he did it in terrific style. He was unflustered and remained calm in what was one of the most eventful Nationals ever run.”

John Richard Lyon Hanmer was born on July 12 1940. His father was away for much of the war serving in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, and John and his elder sister spent their early years at Vaynor Park in North Wales, his mother’s family home. His mother was passionate about racing, which is where his love of the sport came from. He did not even ride as a child because of his asthma.

He was sent to Eton, where his mother took him to the Derby instead of the school’s 4th of June festivities, and afterwards he taught a number of subjects for a few years at Cothill prep school in Oxfordshire, which he had attended as a boy, while commentating at point-to-points at weekends.

In 1960 he relocated to North Yorkshire, lodging at the Fairfax Arms at Gilling East, working as a race reader for Raceform, before joining the BBC in 1972.

Besides his work as a commentator, Hanmer was also a jockey’s agent, principally for Steve Cauthen, three times champion jockey after his arrival in Britain in 1979, Cash Asmussen and Mick Kinane. Hanmer was given the President’s Award at last year’s Horserace Writers and Photographers Awards.

A gentleman in every sense of the word, John Hanmer was a convivial and much loved character in racing circles with a dry sense of humour and a taste for the good things in life – although he had to give up his beloved Havana cigars because of his asthma.

Away from racing, he was a keen bridge player, canny on the tennis court and passionate about cricket, both playing and watching. He also owned several racehorses over the years and like many of his colleagues enjoyed the odd flutter. He was also very keen on point-to-pointing and owned a number of point-to-pointers. His car was never the tidiest, to the extent that he was once contacted by a policeman who was sorry to report that it appeared to have been ransacked.

He married, in 1979, Gillie Smith, who survives him. There were no children.

John Hanmer, born July 12 1940, died November 27 2022