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From national spectacle to forgotten tradition

By: Rolf Johnson   June 5 , 2024
   

For my 50th Derby (out of 245, the first in 1780) I was on The Hill. The Epsom Downs famously rise above the track and being common land, the hoi polloi, the common people, can access them for free to watch the world`s greatest race. They are unchanged, whereas the grandstands on the ‘business` side of the course have been rebuilt many times. There you pay £100 to rub shoulders with Lords, Ladies and Royalty.

An army of security guards patrol the racecourse rails between which, on the track itself, streakers, campaigners and agitators have in the past ‘galloped` (before racing) to attract publicity for their ‘causes`. (I`m not sure what cause streakers – naked individuals, usually male – were ‘demonstrating` for).

On this occasion, the first Saturday in July, the race itself took pride of place. And yet the inquests began the next day into why the most famous racing event in the world could only attract a crowd of 27,500? In former times you could add a nought to that figure. Thank goodness this year Wembley Stadium in north London, staging the European Cup Final on the same day, featured German and Spanish teams. That`s the biggest match in club football: had it been between the two Manchester clubs who had contested the FA Cup Final the week previous at the same venue, Epsom might have been deserted. We hear much about the green shoots of recovery in British racing but the ‘green shoots` on the Hill were actually wide patches of grass bare of the mass of spectators who would have covered acres in days of old.

The race itself will go down in history. Aidan O`Brien`s record breaking tenth Derby was not anticipated by the pundits and defied their post-race analysis. Last year O`Brien had won with his colts` Guineas failure Auguste Rodin and the general opinion was that he couldn`t do it twice – could he? This time his best shot (of three) was the equally hyped City of Troy – before his seventeen lengths eclipse in the Guineas. Before last Saturday the last Derby winner to flunk in the Guineas had been Psidium in 1961: four recent O`Brien Derby victories had seen his principal stable hope beaten by less fancied stablemates, at big odds. This time we got a replay of 2023.

All winter City of Troy, unbeaten at two, had been at unbackable short prices - even to land the Triple Crown - and he was forecast to be invincible at three. Some of his connection`s more optimistic pronouncements had labelled him “Our Frankel”. That was tempting fate – and fate turned its thumb down at Newmarket.

Nothing daunts Aidan O`Brien. A modest, ageless (54) man he said: “You always try to learn from your mistakes.” His ‘mistake` had been “to neglect all stones being unturned” in his preparation of City of Troy. Despite his Guineas defeat Auguste Rodin went off 9-2 in his redemption Derby: City of Troy was 3-1. Both had been odds on. The best bet of this season is that at some stage, when a Coolmore juvenile has won its third Group One in a row, he (or she) will attract the same superlatives, “unusual” “special” “remarkable” “incredibly different” though “our Frankel” will be put away quietly in a drawer.

O`Brien attributed City of Troy`s downfall in the Guineas to the horse`s heart over racing: the trainer`s might have been off the scale when the stalls opened at Epsom. City of Troy was drawn in allegedly the worst stall, one, but Oath and Adayar (both with Indian connections) have come from that box and the disaster of the race came from the furthest stall, 16 from where Voyage`s jockey was ejected – pity, because all the photos of City of Troy in his moment of triumph show him being led past the winning post by a riderless rival!

Ryan Moore`s composure is never less than sphinx-like and he rode City of Troy as though the result was pre-ordained, He has the impregnable temperament of the late Lester Piggott. You couldn`t have imagined a Derby without Lester. And yet there was no mention this year of an absentee still riding Derby winners. Across the ‘pond`, in America, Frankie Dettori was, almost simultaneously with Epsom, doing just that, at Monmouth Park in the Jersey Derby.

Some paddock watchers cavilled over City of Troy`s lean appearance – which is as nature intended! So what of his future? Well, when he goes to stud as the first son of Justify, unbeaten American Triple Crown winner, to stand in Europe, City of Troy will vie at Coolmore for the best of mares with his sire. But it will still be a case of mate the best with the best and hope for the best. Can he do better than, or come anywhere near his Coolmore predecessor, Galileo? Surely not – but negative words are not in the vocabulary of Ireland`s world conquering top team.

Coolmore have a lot invested in Justify. Their other attempts to replace Galileo – they have all twenty-one stallions to choose from - have not so far borne fruit. It`s hard to reconcile O`Brien`s post-race comment that “the Justifys are like the Galileo`s but with more class”! my exclamation mark. A Triple Crown winner to sire the first British Triple Crown winner since Nijinsky? That will be the aim. It is well-nigh impossible in the modern world – horses simply aren`t bred to have the versatility to win over distances spread from a mile to a mile and three quarters. Never say never though where Aidan O`Brien is concerned: he never lost belief in City of Troy – and never loses belief in himself – “Learn from your mistakes”.

Recent fashion has scoffed at the world`s greatest breeder Federico Tesio`s oft repeated, “The thoroughbred exists because its selection depended not on experts, technicians or zoologists but on a piece of wood: the winning post of the Epsom Derby.” There are similar winning posts the world over but Coolmore sets its sights on the one in Surrey. There seems, currently, to be no limits to what O`Brien and his team might accomplish. (An achievement even they can`t match is that of Cadland who won two Epsom Derbies. He first dead-heated with The Colonel but beat him in the re-run. 1828 was a long time ago).

The Derby`s decline from the country`s top sporting attraction to one relegated to the fringes has no starting point (though some will point to the switch from the time-honoured Wednesday to Saturdays) In 1979, Troy`s year, the 200th renewal, it was still worth quoting a Victorian commentator: “Epsom Downs on the Derby Day is the most astonishing, the most varied, the most picturesque and the most glorious spectacle that ever was, as ever can be, under any circumstances, visible to mortal eyes…For once, people speak to other people to whom they have never been formally introduced and positively hob and nob with those palpably inferior to them in status. It is clearly subversive of the proper distinctions which should always in a well-governed society exist between class and class.”

In 2024 there were far more helicopters parked on top of The Hill than ‘hob-nobbers` in open-topped buses which used to line up by the running rail. What hasn`t changed is that to participate in, it is still a rich man`s sport. There was little or no bond between my fellow Hill watchers and events in the posher areas. The commentator`s voice which prompted a desultory cheer before the first, was unintelligible when competing with the Hill`s ear-splitting incessant funfair but with empty rides. And the singing of the National Anthem, done with some gusto drifted away across the Downs, blowing in the blustery wind.

All the colour, tumult and fun (and it must be said skulduggery) – the tipsters and the hucksters and the religious fanatics preaching doom - “Abandon hope all ye who enter here” have either been stamped on or given up the ghost. The Hill is sanitized offering no more than cheap tat stalls, and expensive burgers attracting little custom. (Where was the Indian street food?). I saw not a single copy of the Racing Post (£5 ten pence); the Tote World Pool shacks were as much a curiosity to once a year racegoers as Gypsy Rose Lee used to be. Her crystal ball forecasting the winner is long gone. Charles Dickens who regularly attended the Derby in the mid-1800s had a character, Little Nell, in his novel The Old Curiosity Shop, who says, “How strange it was that horses such fine honest creatures should seem to make vagabonds of all the men they draw about them”.

You always remember your first Derby winner since when attendance becomes an annual ritual, even a pilgrimage. Who was Prime Minister, or who won the FA Cup, mattered less than the times you backed the winner of the Blue Riband of the Turf. Little did I or anyone else know before my ‘debut`, Morston`s year, 1974 that arguably the last gentleman trainer – trilby and tweeds – Arthur Budgett, had told his jockey Edward Hide not to be too hard on his inexperienced, under-prepared home-bred mount. Disgustedly, Hide told the jockey on the next peg in the Epsom weighing room that he, the Cock o` the North, had come all the way from Yorkshire where he`d had a full book of good things at Ripon, to ride a no-hoper. He won at 28-1.

The next year was my year. Looking back, I should have stopped at my winner instead of pursuing another 66-1 shot – odds you could have had about Snow Knight. I`d seen him finishing well in the Lingfield Trial. I`d tipped him in in our university newspaper and for a short while had the freedom of the campus. If I`d known that four short years later I would be working with Snow Knight`s jockey Brian Taylor at Findon for Captain Ryan Price, I`d have given you 66-1.

It was said at the time of the first Saturday Derby, 1996, when the winner was Shaamit, “Some of the same people (unnamed) who had campaigned for that first Saturday Derby campaigned against the second!” Maybe it is time to turn the clock back to the first Wednesday in July. Something must be done – we can`t keep relying on Aidan O`Brien and Coolmore to give the most famous race its headlines and defy history. We can`t rely on the dreams of a Triple Crown – or the next Frankel to rescue us.

 
 
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