Decline of the Classic education

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The Independent Online
WE ARE coming up to that time of the year when the nation's undivided attention was given to a horse race contested by three-year-old colts over one and a half miles across tricky ground, and watched live by an audience frequently estimated in excess of the number required to fill Wembley Stadium three times over.

As most of the onlookers had little chance of being adequately fed and watered, or leaving in pocket, this was a phenomenon that two-legged thoroughbreds in the racing establishment comfortably saw as the proletariat at play.

I refer to the Derby, historically one of the greatest events in the sporting calendar, but the subject this week of an urgent attempt by the Epsom executive to restore the lost prestige that shows in moderate fields, sharply declining attendances and a lost sense of anticipation. Last year's total of 21,452 paying customers was well down on 1991 and less than half the figures achieved between 1986 and 1989. To put it bluntly, the Derby no longer quickens the pulse.

According to some experts of my acquaintance, there are a number of reasons for this lamentable state of affairs. They point to the influence exerted by American breeders who make speed a priority, thus leaving the Derby short of challengers guaranteed to stay one and a half miles. Having most of the best three-year-olds concentrated among a small group of owners doesn't help either because they are unlikely to concentrate entirely on Epsom.

In raising next week's prize-money to pounds 750,000, the aim of the Epsom executive is to make the Derby third in value world-wide behind the Breeders' Cup Classic and the Japan Cup, but this smacks of expensive tinkering. However monstrous in the minds of traditionalists, more could probably be gained from making the Derby a weekend event.

Certainly, it is a long time since there has been any stirring of blood in the run-up to the proceedings. Last year, when Dr Devious won for his American owners, they bet 13-2 the field. With less than a week to go before this year's race, the odds suggest a walkover for Tenby, one of Prince Abdullah's three entries who worked well yesterday to remove whatever doubts had sprung up in the mind of his trainer, Henry Cecil, at the weekend.

Doubtless, this all brings up in the minds of many people the question of whether it is worth making the trip to Epsom with its accompanying aggravations, or even taking the trouble to watch on television.

Meanwhile, more positive people, middle-of-the-road punters, veterans of the long war against odds-makers, will return out of habit.

As for the popular notion that Britain's premier Classic enjoys an unrivalled reputation throughout the world, let me tell you about a conversation that took place in 1987, shortly after Chris McCarron failed miserably when trying to complete the American Triple Crown by winning the Belmont Stakes in New York.

The feat has remained elusive since Steve Cauthen partnered Affirmed in 1978 (with today's emphasis on speed, the Belmont at a mile and a half almost figures as a stayers' race over there). As he had just won the Derby on Reference Point four days earlier it was reasonable to assume that Cauthen would get an honourable mention in the inquest. When informed that his compatriot in exile had recently brought mature judgements to bear on one of the most important races in the calendar, a distinguished American sports columnist asked when this momentous event had occurred.

This brings me to the biggest certainty about next week's event. It is that you will be hearing a great deal more about the renewal of an alliance between a couple of two-legged thoroughbreds whose combined ages total 133 years. Since Lester Piggott, at 57, announced that he would be on Fatherland for the old maestro, Vincent O'Brien, now in his 76th year, there has been a whiff of magic in the air.

Quickly shortening three points to 7-1 in the betting, Fatherland represents the only romantic interest at Epsom. Probably it won't come to anything at all, but Piggott and O'Brien was such a marvellous partnership that you just don't know. What we do know is that without them, the Derby would be even less than it looks.

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