Almanac Obituary: Vale – John Russell: Racecaller



Below is John Craven’s obituary on John Russell following the latter’s death last Sunday aged 93. JR’s biography An Ounce of Luck was one of John’s previous books published in 2007.


The equine racing industry lost one its most endearing characters last Sunday when the indefatigable John Russell died after succumbing to long and taxing medical disorders which he fought stubbornly and somewhat bravely. He was 93.


Known as ‘JR’ to his amazingly-widespread line-up of friends, colleagues, business associates and punters rich and not-so-rich, the gentlemanly and fun-seeking Russell began his 54-year broadcasting career as a humble phantom caller on home-town  Warrnambool radio station 3YB in 1949.


He was plucked from obscurity by the legendary Bert Bryant as his deputy and became a greatly-respected race caller in his own right with top-rating 3UZ and later Sky Channel, describing the gallops, trots and greyhounds with a no-frills, exceptionally-accurate style which earned him the admiration of an army of loyal fans among the racing fraternity. His off-field cheeky demeanour also helped.


Renowned for his remarkable memory and love of a fun time, the ever-cheerful ‘JR’ was always immaculately dressed – suit, overcoat on the arm and Stetson hat. As a four-year-old, he had his first bet on a racehorse in the 1935 Grand National Steeplechase, run at Flemington. He outlaid sixpence on the winner Riawena and doubled his money. The bet was placed with a local SP bookmaker by his sister Kathleen (later revealed to be his mother).


Aged 23, John started at Radio 3UZ in October, 1953, on a weekly wage of three pounds 19 shillings and sixpence. The incredibly-popular Bert Bryant was paid an astronomical 100 pounds a week. The discrepancy didn’t bother the boy from the Bool. He was happy preparing his boss’ equipment, accompanying him to mid-week races on Wednesdays, saddling-up on Saturdays for the metropolitan card or a bush meeting, then calling the trots at the Showgrounds on Saturday nights. Later on, in the early 1970s, it was twice-weekly greyhound meetings at Olympic Park or Sandown.


His versatility extended to the Stawell Gift carnival. In his late teens, he took up professional running and joined the stable of Frank O’Grady who trained a large squad of middle distance athletes at the South Warrnambool Football Club oval. ‘JR’ reckoned he was an excellent chance of winning the 880 yards at the 1954 three-day meeting but his plans were thwarted when he obtained his dream job at 3UZ and retired from the run-for-cash sport. Instead, he later called the famous Gift, first held in 1878, for a decade or so after 3UZ secured the broadcasting rights.


Russell reckoned one of his illustrious career highlights occurred in 1956 when he was chosen by the Commercial Broadcasting Network to describe the 10,000 metres at the Melbourne Olympic Games. Raced on a cinders track at the MCG, the gold medal was won sensationally by the tenacious Russian Vladimir Kuts. However, it was another dutiful 21 years before he got to achieve his pinnacle – upon Bert Bryant’s retirement in 1977, he called his first Melbourne Cup, won by Gold And Black. He went on to call another 19 of the race-that-stops-a-nation, and did them all entertainingly and methodically.


had the privilege of collaborating with John on his autobiography, An Ounce Of Luck, published in 2007. I felt his extraordinary life story should be recorded for posterity – and I was right. In today’s cock-eyed politically-correct climate, “JR” may not have survived – at least not in the manner he ran his life. In 1984, he formed Phar Lap Travel with daughter Sue and merrily strutted the world racing stage as the leader of tour groups, starting out with the Darwin, Launceston and Perth Cups and branching out to big-time events in England, Ireland, France, Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea, Malaysia, The Philippines, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, New Zealand and the United States.


believe Bart Cummings got it right about ‘JR’ at a Geelong meeting one afternoon in 1988. The duo bumped into racing official Chris Ford who asked of the iconic trainer: “Do you know John Russell?”


“Certainly do,” Bart declared. “They call Bill Collins the accurate one – this is the real one.”


John Russell’s funeral service will be held on Monday, April 8, starting at 11 a.m. at the Boyd Chapel, Springvale Botanical Cemetery. Full details in the Herald Sun.



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