It is said that the Epsom Derby is the greatest race in the world. I disagree. I believe anyone with any sense of perspective would disagree. It is undoubtedly the greatest three-year-old race in Europe. But in the age in which we live, it possibly only just cracks the top ten, with the Grand National and Cheltenham Gold Cup being both more popular and greater by any rational definition of the word. In flat terms both the Melbourne Cup and the Kentucky Derby out-rank the Epsom Derby, and due to its humungous prize money the Dubai World Cup is beginning to overhaul it too.
Which is wrong. Plain wrong. The Epsom Derby has history, a heritage that all these other races lack. Restoring the race to its former glories, though, will not be an easy matter. Just getting people to accept the Derby is no longer what it was will be hard enough. Counselling may be required. Seminars may have to be organised on a monthly basis. It may take hypnotism to stop Frankie Dettori saying ‘It is da greatest race in da world’, to anyone who will listen.
Like Epsom, Madonna is not what she was fifteen years ago and no amount of plastic surgery or conical bras will return her to the days when she ruled the pop world. It is the same with the Epsom Derby. No amount of plastic surgery – I reference the re-naming of the free enclosure ‘Poundland Hill’ –or stewards wearing conical bras will right the decline. Nor will pouring millions into the prize fund. This Saturday’s race would have the same field if the prize money was halved. Churchill is absent not because the prize money is an insult to his status as Coolmore’s next wunderkind but because he will devalue himself if getting soundly beaten.
That’s the problem, isn’t it, sort of? Once upon a time the Epsom Derby was the buzzing bee all and end all, the only flat race worth winning and trainers gave it a go even if their top colts were not bred to stay an inch beyond a mile. Churchill can wait for Royal Ascot, while others can cross the Channel for a try at the French Derby. The poor old Epsom Derby isn’t even the bee’s knees in its own country anymore.
The solution, if there is a solution, indeed if there needs to be a solution, lies in the past, in the not so long ago days when the Derby had gravitas with ordinary folk, the sort of public who had two bets a years, the Grand National and the Derby. These days the people on the street will not be aware, even on Saturday morning, that Saturday is Derby Day. Many will even go shopping rather than watch the race on the telly.
The Derby must revert to being run on a Wednesday, so attending the race is a holiday, a day away from the dull routine. Run on a Wednesday the race will retrieve some of its uniqueness. On a Saturday the Derby must contend with and contest for coverage with whatever sporting events are on around the world.
Back in the fifties, sixties and seventies, before the O’Brien’s came along, before Coolmore and Galileo took the race virtually hostage, the twice-a-year punter had a choice of twenty or thirty runners, with the argy-bargy out on the rollercoaster switchback of a course almost designed to give the good outsider a chance of victory now and again. 6/5 favourites are of no interest to Joe Public, as are ten or twelve runner fields. Aidan O’Brien having the first six home will be forgotten about by the general public come strawberry-eating time.
The Derby has become elitist. It is no longer a race for the one-horse owner, yards with a small number of horses, the journeyman jockey who for a ride in the Derby will forego six rides somewhere else on the day.
It is all very well for Ryan Moore to claim that it was ‘deadwood’ getting in his way that cost him victory on Carlton House but it is not unheard of for horses at the head of the betting to become unbalanced coming down the hill and rolling into outsiders making steady progress through the field.
It is like in the sixties when people argued for the abolition of capital punishment, citing the odd occasion when there was a miscarriage of justice. It is the same for the Derby, with the elitists wanting a restriction on horses they consider ‘no-hopers’ and citing 1962 when seven horses fell because of scrimmaging and the stewards blamed no one in particular though blaming owners for running horses ‘with no business to be in the race and getting in the way of fancied runners’.
Very soon, if we are not careful, and already the powers-that-be have taken the sad, bad and mad precedent of disallowing Gina Mangen to ride in this year’s Derby, citing their responsibility toward health and safety, a case of making up the rules as they go along, the Derby will be subject to the sort of debate the Grand National recently endured, with talk of realigning the course, running the race on a ‘proper’ racecourse or taking the route of the French and shortening the race two furlongs.
For the Derby to revert to challenging for the title ‘greatest race’ it must be diverted from the elitist race it has become and remember the time when it was known as the ‘Peoples Race; the Derby the centrepiece of a Cockney Festival. It shouldn’t be about future stallions and the millions they will earn their millionaire owners but a horse race. Simply a horse race.
For what it’s worth I hope Godolphin win this year. Sheikh Mohammed deserves to see the Godolphin blue in the winning enclosure.
Keith Knight is a workaday writer of fiction, worker in the real world but foremost a horse racing fanatic. The joy of the sport is the horse - all horses.