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John McCririck: Looking back at Alexandra Park's 'frying pan' racecourse, where pundit wanted his ashes scattered

PUBLISHED: 09:00 03 August 2019

John McCririck during the campaign to save The Engineer pub, in Primrose Hill. Picture: Nigel Sutton

John McCririck during the campaign to save The Engineer pub, in Primrose Hill. Picture: Nigel Sutton

© Nigel Sutton email pictures@nigelsuttonphotography.com

When instantly recognisable former Channel 4 Racing pundit and Primrose Hill resident John McCririck died last month, thoughts turned to his final wishes.

Map of Alexandra Park and racecourse in 1935. Picture: Friends of Alexandra ParkMap of Alexandra Park and racecourse in 1935. Picture: Friends of Alexandra Park

Well before the final furlong of his life, he made it clear that he wanted to be cremated and his ashes scattered at the final furlong marker of the old Alexandra Park course.

The course was well known, and one of London's last race courses. It was notorious for its shape, and was fondly known as the "frying pan" because of it.

The course's starting point for the one mile, five furlong run was, unusually, behind the winning post. Horses would then run down the trap, around the "pan" and back up its handle. The centre of the loop of the track is now taken up by Alexandra Park Cricket and Football club. The paddock and grandstand were near where a car park currently is. It wasn't just horses that galloped around the course, either: greyhound racing meetings were held at the track.

It was open for just over a century, with the final meet on September 8, 1970. Its decline was hastened by the withdrawal of support by the Betting Levy Board in the decade before.

Alexandra Park Racecourse in 1895. Picture: Creative Commons/Greyhound DerbyAlexandra Park Racecourse in 1895. Picture: Creative Commons/Greyhound Derby

There was still a brief glimmer of life in the course after 1970, as a year later it hosted the CND Festival of Life.

At the time, McCririck, who became a well-known figure on TV, was working as a young reporter for Sporting Life, where he started his career in the media.

Recognisable for his deerstalker hat, cigar and sideburns, he became the face of Channel 4 racing for decades.

Speaking to this newspaper in 2011 in support of a failed campaign to bring back racing to Alexandra Park, he said: "Part of me died when Alexandra Park closed the racecourse in 1970.

Andrew Franklin. Picture: Andrew FranklinAndrew Franklin. Picture: Andrew Franklin

"I've never recovered from it.

"Alexandra Park race course was a fantastic place to go every Monday evening.

"It had a terrific atmosphere, particularly for working class common people like me. We would eat the jellied eels and watch the races.

"Maybe a bit of nostalgia has crept in, but I loved that racecourse.

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"Monday nights were always really special, for all of us.

"I definitely support the proposal to bring horses back to the Palace."

His friend and former producer Andrew Franklin said the well-known late racing pundit had discussed his wishes with him when they were getting the train to racing meets at York or Doncaster.

"You could see where the old racecourse was from the railway line," he said.

"[I] never discussed with him why it was the final furlong marker rather than the winning post. There are 1,001 questions we should have asked him, but that was his wish.

"He lived in London all his adult life and it was his local course."

A young Andrew himself visited the "unique" course once, at its last meeting in September 1970.

After a search by Andrew and John's widow Jenny for where the final furlong post was, they believe they have now found it. The former Channel 4 racing boss even visited the site last week to try to find it, initially to no avail.

He said: "I even went into a nearby betting shop to see if anybody in there knew where it was, but the lady who worked there said anyone who might have known the course has passed on."

In his 30 years of friendship, there's one memory of John that stands out in particular.

In the 1990s the Channel 4 team were covering the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, better known as the Arc.

One of the races earlier in the meeting had resulted in a stewards inquiry to determine the winner. The show continued while it took place, and started to build up for the main race at the meeting in Longchamp. John, also known as Mac to those who knew and worked with him, interrupted it to say that the result was incoming.

"It was indeterminable. We heard this 'bing bong' of the tannoy to give the result. Mac was thrilled that he was on screen and would be announcing the verdict of the inquiry.

"He had clearly forgotten that it was in French - a language he hadn't mastered. We watched as the colour drained from his face and he was totally incapable of interpreting what the result was. All the producers and staff wet themselves laughing. We shouldn't have laughed, but we did.

"He was a warm hearted fellow. Everybody on the team loved him. We'll miss him."

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