Changes on parade at Epsom

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The Independent Online

Racing Correspondent

For someone in Chad or Somalia who has to walk miles for a drink it must seem like madness. For two weeks now Epsom racecourse has been sprayed daily with up to 200,000 gallons of water, a process that will continue up to Derby day if natural measures do not intervene.

It is 25 days since rain last fell on the Surrey track, but officials have been quickly out of the stalls to ensure the terrain is classified as good on 10 June.

There are few who doubt the reason for this diligence is a horse called Celtic Swing, who may not be the flying machine the dreamers wanted him to be but is still the biggest draw for many seasons. The colt's connections have said their horse will not run if the ground is firm, and heed has been taken of the warning.

"We are trying to produce the best possible ground for all the runners," Edward Gillespie, the managing director of Epsom's owners, United Racecourses, said yesterday. "It would be easier for us to to promote the horse race if Celtic Swing was in the pack.''

The man who controls the deluge is Nigel Thornton, the head groundsman who explained his motives yesterday as a Trevi fountain of water cascaded on to the course behind him.

"We must get grass cover because that helps keep the moisture in," he said. "Mother Nature drops rain consistently over an area and with artificial watering you can't quite get the same effect. But we started quite early and we're well ahead of the game.''

By Derby day the course's new parade ring, behind the main grandstand, will have been completed at a cost close to £200,000. This will eliminate the walk to the old paddock which involved a round journey of half a mile and meant that dedicated spectators were being asked to cover more ground than some horses.

On the debit side, the new area puts an end to the quaint Epsom tradition of the jockeys piling into a minibus to get to their mounts, squabbling for seats like fifth-formers setting out on a school trip.

Gillespie is attempting to promote the Derby as the people's race, with the entertainment designed to capture the meeting of the East End and West End.

The show will include such as the Brotherhood of the Bow, which is not a Masonic chapter from Docklands, but rather a mediaeval pageant.

Gillespie does not know how many people will turn out for the first weekend Derby, especially now that one of sport's most widely appreciated facts - that the Derby is held on the first Wednesday in June - is redundant. It's Saturday now, the second Saturday of the month. "We must be sure that people know when and where we are here," he said.

Advance booking for coaches does not deliver an encouraging signal. About 160 have signed up thus far, compared with 200 at the same time last year.

There will be money going around, however. In the great gourmet statistics table Gillespie expects 7,000 bottles of champagne, 600 lobsters and 180 dozen oysters to slip down the collective throat. But avoid the broth, as 50 chefs have been hired to prepare the victuals.