Never mind Folkestone, Musselburgh, Hexham et al, this Saturday the focus of the racing universe will be focused on a hilly area just to the south west of London. Yes it is Derby weekend and at 4:20, 19 runners will face the starter to run up and down the undulations of Epsom Downs to discover the best racehorse of the current generation. For the winning connections a fat pay cheque, not just from the race itself but from stud fees as their charge is ultimately packed off for every males dream life of five star luxury and getting to bed some of the best fillies around.
But is The Derby really an indicator of the best horse? Certainly some brilliant horses have won The Derby and have become enshrined in racing folklore, however a more Derby winners have disappeared into oblivion. More often than not retired quickly to stud lest their latter performances reveal the Derby win as being a fluke, thus diminishing their value at stud.
From Changing the Guard, to roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, we British love our traditions and The Derby is a tradition that has evolved over the years. In the real traditional days The Derby used to be held the first Wednesday in June. Such was its importance Parliament would shut down as the honourable members joined the throngs travelling to Epsom. As a very small child we live not far from Epsom and I can still remember the huge amounts of traffic and people walking past the house on the first Wednesday in June. However is tradition justification in itself to maintain something that does not measure up in the real world?
Let us look at the evidence against the race being so important.
First of all there is the course. I would lay a pound to a penny, that if some entrepreneur went to the HRA and said they wanted to build a new course with the same characteristics as Epsom, they would be escorted from Shaftsbury Avenue. “Yes, I want to build a course which is a left handed horseshoe shaped. The first half mile will be steeply uphill, with a kink to the right thrown in for good measure, then as the horses start running downhill I want to throw in a nasty left hand turn which will throw the unwary horse off balance. Having faced all that I will then build the home straight on the side of the hill so one side of the track is six foot higher than the other, so it will be a miracle if the jockeys can get their tired mounts to run straight. I almost forgot, I also want to add a 5f straight course that is downhill all the way.” It does not sound that promising.
Secondly the race is confined to three year olds. So all the race actually identifies is the best three year old who, on the day, is able to cope with the idiosyncrasies of an unusual race track. What does that prove? OK any race depends on the wellbeing of the horse on the day itself, however just beating horses of the same age proves little. Finally it is run too early in the season to be worthwhile in terms of form.
I am not saying The Derby should not be run, it is a special race and anyone who has been to Epsom on Derby Day will attest that for atmosphere it is unbeatable.
If we are looking for a better race to call the Blue Riband over 1½ miles then lets look to the King George at Ascot at the end of July. Run over a much fairer course, more importantly it is open to horses of all ages. Surely a much better yardstick?
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