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Penney - a racing man of TV still in fine voice.

Byline: LEE MOTTERSHEAD

HERE is a voice in my head.

TIt is a voice from the past and belongs to a man I have never met and would not recognise. At least not by his face. His voice, however, was unmistakable. Pleased to report, it still is.

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It was three Saturdays back at Haydock that the seed was planted. Commentators Darren Owen and Stewart Machin, two of the press room's finest racing anoraks, were enthusing about a download they had watched on YouTube.

This was a real gem from the past. By placing a recording device in front of a television set, someone called Cheesebody (gender unknown) had posted ITV's coverage of the 1982 Pennine Chase at Doncaster.

Go online and watch it. You will see the mighty Night Nurse thrashing former Gold Cup hero Midnight Court, and you will hear one of the most distinctive and recognisable voices racing has known.

Although not as celebrated as some of his contemporaries, John Penney provided the soundtrack to many of racing's greatest occasions.

Through most of the 1970s, he shared the role of ITV's lead commentator with Raleigh Gilbert, but it was always Penney who called the Derby and Oaks.

It was Penney who eulogised about Red Rum in the 1974 Scottish National, Penney who described, with increasing disbelief in his voice, the sight of Roberto pulling away from Brigadier Gerard at York. And it was Penney who called the Pennine Chase for World Of Sport.

By then, the ITV hotseat had passed to Graham Goode. Penney and Gilbert became his understudies, first at ITV and thereafter at Channel 4. While GG got the glamour gigs, Penney or Gilbert would be sent to the second meeting, or, if the action was from Newmarket, dispatched way down the Rowley Mile to commentate for a few furlongs before handing over to the main man in the grandstand. Penney's was a familiar, friendly voice, but it eventually fell silent. He was switched off by the telly.

Unlike Gilbert, whose life ended in sad circumstances 12 years ago, Penney is still with us. But although not gone, he has become somewhat forgotten. Even among former colleagues, little was known of his whereabouts or health. Now that can be rectified, for following a little digging, a phone call from a friendly neighbour and a trip to the fringes of Essex, John Penney, once a writer for The Sporting Life, is in the Racing Post.

Dressed in a blue polo shirt, brown cords, red socks and slippers, he sits in the lounge of his picture postcard cottage, a cup of tea on the table to his side. Ill health requires him to spend most of his time confined to an armchair, but neighbours and carers ensure that he is well looked after. Prepared for a visitor, he has next to him a 1978 book, entitled, "The Racing Men Of TV", in which a chapter is devoted to him. Dipping occasionally into the book as a means of jogging an 84-year-old memory, he talks happily about racing, occasionally releasing a booming laugh.

"Cliff Morgan was the chap who discovered me when I was doing the course commentary at Ludlow," he recalls. "He told me that he liked my voice. It is quite distinctive. I remember one day after I'd been commentating somewhere in the north, I filled up with petrol near Doncaster and was talking to the woman behind the till when someone from the other side of the room shouted out: 'I know that voice!' He'd be listening to me on the telly that afternoon."

MORGAN forged a link between Penney and the BBC, for whom he worked prior to - and, for one day a year, after - joining ITV. "I had special dispensation from ITV to do the Grand National for the Beeb on the wireless," he explains. "The last one I went to was in the year of the bomb scare. One wag asked me if it was true it was going to be my final National. I said, yes, and he told me it looked like I might be going out with a bang!" His final assignment completed, John has continued to watch racing on the BBC and Channel 4, but in recent years his binoculars have stayed at home.

"If I wasn't anchored to my chair, I'd be forever in the Newmarket press room," he admits. "I've met so many nice people, and some of my friends come to see me when they're racing at Newmarket.

"I wish some of the others would come as well, but after people have been racing, they obviously want to go home."

Perhaps now and again they might make a detour. Just a short hop from Newmarket, they will find a commentator once welcomed into the living rooms of racing fans at least once a week. John Penney is still very much with us. And he sounds much the same.
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Aug 28, 2010
Words:823
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