Ad JR with Jim McGrath (L) and Greg Miles (R)

Vale John ‘JR’ Russell – ever reliable and pin-point accurate

25 March 2024 Written by VRC, Racing Victoria and Pat Bartley

Racing lost one of its true characters recently when distinguished race caller John 'JR' Russell, passed away at the age of 93.

Russell’s career in racing spanned more than 50 years and included the calling of 20 Melbourne Cups between 1977 and 1997, as well as being a long-standing racecaller on both 3UZ (now RSN) and Sky Channel (now Sky Racing).

Born in Warrnambool in 1931, Russell was the youngest of six children by 22 years. His love of racing formed as a child by regularly attending the Warrnambool Racing Club, where he took a keen interest in remembering the different coloured silks. 

From an era that produced race callers the ilk of Bill Collins, Bert Bryant, Frank O’Brien, Joe Brown, Eric Welsh and Jim Carroll, Russell was an extremely popular figure and known to many people across Victoria.  

After leaving school at 14 following the death of his father, Russell worked at the Nestles factory as a packer and at night, sang in a dance band.

Following a freak meeting with radio identity, Harry Fuller, Russell was offered a job with a local radio station calling football to the Hampden league and broadcasting occasional race meetings.

A devout Carlton supporter who demanded that his contract stipulate that if the Blues made the Grand Final, he would have the day off regardless of the importance of the race meeting he was missing.

Many people, including some doctors, maintained that Russell had a freak photographic memory for names, dates and colours.

It’s said that Russell could still tell you the names and colours of his first Grand Annual in 1937.

He was a family man and moved across several codes including harness racing where he called many Inter Dominion Finals and Hunter Cups; the greyhounds and even foot racing, where he called the Stawell Gift on many occasions. But it would be his passion for thoroughbred racing where Russell would ultimately excel. 

A long time ‘side-kick’ for Bery Bryant over 20 years at 3UZ, Russell would call 20 Melbourne Cups starting off with a memorable call in 1977 Melbourne Cup when Gold and Black secured victory. 

Gold and Black wins the 1977 Melbourne Cup

Russell was the voice of Melbourne racing on Sky Channel and it was during this time that he called the final of his Melbourne Cups in 1997 when Might And Power was victorious.

Commenting of his contribution to racing, former colleagues Bryan Martin and Jim McGrath paid tribute to someone who lived out his dream doing what he did best, race calling. 

“He was a great caller and personality in racing,’ said Bryan Martin OAM when recently interviewed on Racing 927. 

“He provided beautifully balanced race-calls and was always accurate. He enjoyed life and could go with the best of them but he was great company and had many friends. It is a sad day for all,” Martin added. 

Similarly, international broadcaster Jim McGrath was also full of praise for a man who was equally as famous for his exploits at the Warrnambool Carnival where he would call 45 Grand Annual Steeplechases. 

“John was ever reliable and traveled the length and breadth of Victoria,” McGrath stated. 

“He was a huge ambassador for racing and synonymous with Warrnambool. He was a great mentor for many race-callers coming through and had an amazing memory recalling horses, trainers and jockeys from over 50 years ago. 

“He was outstanding at what he did,” added McGrath. 

In the late 80s Russell departed 3UZ before taking up a role with Sky Channel where he became the voice of Victorian Racing on that platform. His final Melbourne Cup call was in 1997 when Might and Power saluted by the narrowest of margins over Doriemus. He continued to work for Sky Channel until 2003 when diagnosed with Macular Degenerative Eye Disease. 

John helped develop the popular Phar Lap Tours including many international carnivals as well as the Darwin Cup Carnival. He was also a popular figure on the VRC’s Melbourne Cup Tour, taking in many community visits on the road including the very last appearance of two-time Melbourne Cup winning jockey and racing legend, Roy Higgins. This was to the Victorian western districts' towns of Terang and Woolsthorpe. 

VRC Chairman, Neil Wilson, speaking on behalf of the VRC, was appreciative for the contribution made by John over a long period time. 

“John Russell was a friend to the Victoria Racing Club and our thoughts are with his loved ones. John made a significant contribution to racing and to the history of Flemington Racecourse as a voice of the Melbourne Cup for 20 years and a proud ambassador for the Cup Tour in later years,” said Mr Wilson. 

RV Chief Executive, Andrew Jones, said: “On behalf of the Victorian racing industry, I would like to extend our heartfelt condolences to John’s family and friends following the news of his passing.

“The racecaller is central to people’s love of racing, fostering great emotions and lifelong memories. John Russell was a wonderful exponent of the craft and an integral part of the rich history of Victorian racing.

“He was renowned by racing fans for his exceptional judgement and by those who knew him personally as a loyal friend, giving mentor and personable human.

“JR, as he was known to many, dedicated his life to Victorian racing and our sport is greater for his exceptional contribution. His was a racing life well lived.”

Fellow race callers from around Australia were saddened by the loss of Russell with former broadcaster, Greg Miles, believing the loss of the likes of Russell will leave an enormous hole.

“These men called under often difficult circumstances but they entertained and people hung on every word.  And John was the same, able to recount so much of the past,” Miles said.

And another broadcaster, Bryan Martin, said that Russell came through an era of race calling that was so important to the industry.

“There was no TV, there was just radio and they had to paint the picture for all of those at home or in pubs or even in interstate betting rings around the nation.

“His recall for dates and places was extraordinary.  He would tell you parts of racing history that very few would know.  We were a part of a great team at 3UZ, Bert Bryant and John Russell were the pivotal parts of making racing an enjoyable and fascinating business,” Martin said.

John Russell was much loved by those who knew him and admired by many as an expert at his chosen profession, race-calling. He was a recipient of the prestigious Bert Wolfe Award (1997). Thoughts are with his long-time carer and daughter Sue and the extended Russell family. May he rest in peace.