Under starter's orders for the People's Derby

The woman trying to halt the decline of Britain's premier flat race has enraged the sport's traditionalists, writes Jojo Moyes
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The Independent Online
The woman organising Saturday's Derby has caused uproar in the racing world with her plan to turn one of the greatest days in the calendar of the sport of kings into a race for the people.

Sue Ellen, who runs Epsom and two other racecourses, wants to restore the Derby's standing as one of the most popular sporting events of the season.

For Saturday's event, with its new pounds 1m first prize, she has slashed prices, reopened the publicly accessed "hill" in the centre of the course, and ripped down fences so that racegoers will be able to line the rail as they did until a decade ago. Potential racegoers are being urged, via ads on London's Capital Radio, to give the Derby a try as a day out to remember. The heart of Ms Ellen's strategy is simple: to return the race to being the "People's Derby" that it once was.

Simple it may be, but it is controversial too. Her plan has ignited a controversy in racing, a world not known for its progressive views. She has been accused of "vulgarising" the race, encouraging drinking on the course and of generally lowering the tone of one of the highlights of the racing calendar. Robert Sangster and jockey Pat Eddery are among a growing "traditionalist" lobby who want the Derby moved back from Saturday to Wednesday.

When Ms Ellen took over as managing director of United Racecourses, the company which owns the Epsom course, she inherited one of racing's toughest tasks: to reverse the decline of Britain's once favourite day out.

It is undisputed that the Derby, Britain's premier flat race, is in decline. Unlike the Grand National, which this year attracted 12 million viewers, last year's Derby totalled 2.5 million - down 1.8 million since 1993. Despite a move from Wednesday to Saturday two years ago, just 55,000 people turned up to watch, compared with 300,000 half a century ago.

"Nobody wrote to me when I started this job without saying what a challenge the Derby was," she laughs. "There seemed to be this wave of sympathy. Like the job was something of a poisoned chalice.

"Everyone holds strong views on what the race should be, some of them quite aggressive," she says diplomatically.

"It's had a long history and it has declined but the point is that it was always going to decline because its heyday was before television, before the car, before all the other leisure opportunities.

"The Derby is a day out and that's why we talk about it as a people's race. It was the basis for the East End's 'day out'. It used to have pearly kings and queens. It used to be a national institution. Parliament used to stop for it."

She believes the Derby, which began in 1661, had recently "lost its way". To move forwards, she says, the racing community has to accept that it is now part of - and in competition with - a booming leisure industry.

To ensure that new visitors do not feel alienated by the often strange customs and terminology, she encourages new staff to come to the racecourse as ordinary members of the public would, "to see how their treatment colours their experience".

"We're trying to make it more inviting to families. At York the other day I saw groups of girls dressed up and having a rather good time. We need to look at that, how to make it appealing to different groups."

"I think people should be able to choose. I don't think it has to be a choice between vulgarising or making it absolutely exclusive. The thing that's unique about the Derby is its social mix."

Ms Ellen, at 48 as elegant as a thoroughbred, and with a ready laugh, is an unconventional head of United Racecourses. Married to a banker with two teenage daughters, she recently took a six-month sabbatical to go trekking in Nepal. She also professes a fondness for white water rafting, and says that sometimes her daughters "just wish they could spend their holidays in Cornwall".

In short, she could not be further from the Jockey Club "duffers" that have traditionally dominated the racing hierarchy, and her entrance - albeit through headhunters - has not passed without comment. She has been described variously as "tough as teak", and as "a new outsider with a heart as hard as a money lender".

The descriptions leave her laughing, if a little bemused. Some of the old guard may be a little threatened by her, she concedes - perhaps because she's a successful woman.

"I think people are a bit wary because I'm seen as commercial, they probably think I'm tough, but I don't know why that's an issue," she says, adding without irony: "That girl who runs Brands Hatch [Nicola Foulston]. Now she seems pretty tough. But then I spoke to her on the phone and she seemed all right."

Like Foulston, and Karren Brady of Birmingham City Football Club, Sue Ellen has had a rapid and disproportionately high profile as a senior woman in a man's world.

"My appointment was announced on the front page of the Times," she says. "I suppose that should have been an early warning."

A racehorse owner herself, Ms Ellen knew the world she was entering and is pragmatic about her experiences. She also has no axe to grind about her gender.

"I think the old hierarchical control culture which men were very comfortable with is declining. Racing is slowly changing, but in terms of management technique it's still very old fashioned and it doesn't realise how far it has to go.

"The great thing about being a woman of my generation is that there are no precedents ... That's still an advantage here. You don't fit into a mould, so people aren't saying 'she's not like so-and-so'."

Saturday will largely determine whether Sue Ellen is vindicated. Her main concern is weather ("I'll spend the rest of the week praying for rain"). But as far as the "People's Derby" is concerned, early signs are good, with coach and ticket bookings up, and a healthy demand for corporate hospitality.

What if it doesn't work? Ms Ellen looks a bit nonplussed, then laughs. "I'll feel a bit sick on Saturday night I suppose! No, If we get it wrong, well then, we'll just keep doing it until we get it right."