June 05 2010
It’s Derby Day at Epsom Downs, traditionally one of Britain’s most colourful and rambunctious sporting outings. In a more deferential age it used to offer a memorable opportunity to witness toffs and spivs mingling freely, all in pursuit of winners, revelry and a high old time. Even now it still draws an eclectic mix of British, Irish and Middle Eastern high rollers along with the once-a-year racegoers in their open-top buses parked along the rails, and gypsies and fortune tellers up on the hill.
It’s a scene that William Powell Frith captured unforgettably in his great 1858 painting The Derby Day. The sweeping canvas is less about the race than the spectators. And what a splendidly louche bunch they are, from the top-hatted gentry in carriages, and one aristo’s bored-looking mistress, to the crafty “thimble-rigger”, or three-card-trick merchant, emptying the pockets of the more gullible punters.
Some of today’s 125,000-strong crowd will be Derby veterans drawn by the lure of history and tradition. Others will be Epsom debutants, but all are likely to be engrossed by the extraordinary nature of the Derby course. The first quarter of a mile presents the runners with a 110ft climb to the rim of the Downs, and the subsequent scrambling descent to the left-handed turn at Tattenham Corner – where suffragette Emily Davison threw herself under the hooves of King George V’s horse in 1913 – is the most challenging stretch of flat race track anywhere in the world. Even when they reach the home straight the horses and jockeys still have to contend with the unsettling camber, which tilts markedly to the inside rail.
Only the best, most agile riders – including Lester Piggott, Kieren Fallon and Walter “The Choirboy” Swinburn – have excelled regularly at Epsom. It used to be a nightmare for some French jockeys, especially Freddie Head (now a successful trainer in Chantilly), who rode Lyphard there in 1972 and seemed unable to apply the brakes as he galloped downhill towards Tattenham Corner. “If Freddie Head rides at Epsom again the gypsies are going to start demanding danger money,” joked one bookmaker afterwards.
For 2010 the unique contours of Epsom Downs have been an inspiration to the talented young artist Charlie Langton, who was commissioned by Derby sponsor Investec to design a perpetual trophy worthy of the occasion. His design, crafted by Asprey, is circular, half a metre in diameter and evokes the spine-tingling climax of the race as the runners charge down the hill and into the home straight. There are also three silver horses, sculpted and mounted on a macassar ebony base, and the winner’s name will be engraved on a silver cuff surrounding the entire work.
Back in 1844 a group of rogues and chancers tried to steal the Derby by entering a four-year-old “ringer”, not qualified to run. The story of their audacious plot and the personalities who unmasked it is beautifully told by How To Spend It contributing editor Nick Foulkes in his book Gentleman & Blackguards, just published (£18.99, Weidenfeld & Nicolson).
The 2009 Derby winner Sea The Stars achieved racing immortality by more conventional means, going through the entire season unbeaten. Aidan O’Brien’s Ballydoyle stable had similar hopes for St Nicholas Abbey, the 5-2 favourite this afternoon. But he was beaten in the 2,000 Guineas and I’d rather back Bullet Train each way at 12-1 with Hills.