In all, 3.5m people watched Benny The Dip beat Silver Patriarch by a short-head, an increase of 1.5m on 1996, and even allowing for the clash with England's first match in Euro 96 which skewed the ratings 12 months ago, this was more excellent news for the world's most famous Flat race.
The figures will have given particular pleasure to Vodafone, the Derby's sponsors, who had made it clear that they were far from satisfied with last year's audience. The implication was that their contract might not be renewed after this year's race, but now that the Derby seems to have caught an upcurrent, it is hard to believe that the association will not be extended.
"The audience was 3.5m compared with 2m last year," John Fairley, executive producer of Channel 4 Racing, said yesterday, "and furthermore 5.9m tuned in to the programme as a whole, plus an estimated one million in pubs, clubs and betting shops. This gave Channel 4 one of the biggest viewing shares ever, at 36 per cent compared with 26 per cent for BBC1, six per cent for BBC2 and ITV and two per cent for Channel 5 [the rest were watching satellite stations, apparently]. It is a reflection of the all-round success of the Derby that even on an afternoon of glorious sunshine we are able to announce the best viewing figures for many years."
The movement to return the Derby to its traditional place on the first Wednesday in June has thus been stopped in its tracks by a storm of positive statistics, including the final figures for Tote business, which were also released yesterday. On-course, the machine's turnover increased by 37 per cent - even more than the 28 per cent rise in the crowd figure - while away from the track, turnover was up by 20 per cent. As a result, Rob Hartnett, the Tote's spokesman, said yesterday that the organisation will "throw its weight" behind keeping the Derby on a Saturday.
For all that Saturday's finish was one of the most exciting for years, the merit of Benny The Dip's performance was called into some question yesterday when Liam Cashman, the Cork-based bookmakers who make a habit of being first with big-race odds, framed a list on the Irish Derby, which is expected to feature a rematch between the first two home at Epsom. Peintre Celebre, Andre Fabre's French Derby winner, is 2-1 favourite to beat them both at the Curragh on 29 June, with Benny The Dip and Silver Patriarch the joint second-favourites on 3-1. Johan Cruyff, trained by Aidan O'Brien, is an 8-1 chance, with Ashley Park, winner of the Leopardstown Derby Trial, on 14-1, and 16-1 bar.
There is no mention of Entrepreneur, who just a few days ago was expected to be the horse of the season. His disappointing run at Epsom is still unexplained, and the location of his next run uncertain. "It's very frustrating," a spokeswoman for Michael Stoute's stable said yesterday, "but I suppose he's entitled to an off-day. Perhaps it was just badly timed." If so, this was the only thing about the 1997 Derby that was.
NB: Sealed By Fate