Epsom in a call to the multitude

Saturday's Derby has a tough task in attracting crowds. Greg Wood reports

For a millionaire sports fan with a helicopter and a full tank of petrol, this weekend has the potential to be the experience of a lifetime. On Saturday, you could catch the opening session of the First Test between England and India at Edgbaston in Birmingham, fly to Epsom for the Derby at 2.25pm, and then make a swift exit towards Wembley with just enough time to spare to catch the Euro '96 kick-off between England and Switzerland.

The problem for the organisers of these events, of course, is that the average sports fan does not have such resources at their disposal, and in Britain this Saturday the competition for the pound in their pockets is fiercer than ever before.

While England's match at Wembley sold out before Christmas, those who must sell tickets for the alternative attractions have been forced, to a greater or lesser extent, to react to the challenge of the country's most important sporting event for 30 years.

The threat has been felt most keenly at Epsom, which has gone so far as to move the Derby, which far pre-dates both international cricket and football, from its traditional place in mid-afternoon. The world's most famous Classic will now be the second race on Saturday's card, sandwiched between two handicaps, to permit both television viewers and racegoers, should they so wish, to devote the remainder of the afternoon to football.

Diamond-vision screens at Epsom will show England's match unless a race is actually in progress, while other televisions around the course will not even make that small concession to the racing.

Admission prices have also been cut, from pounds 50 to pounds 40 in the Club enclosure, while the change to bring a car and as many passengers as it can hold into the centre of the course has been halved, from pounds 20 down to pounds 10.

In one respect, the Derby beats all its competitors out of sight. While Wembley tickets cost between pounds 25 and pounds 75 and those at Edgbaston from pounds 13 to pounds 35, it is still possible to watch the Derby from the Downs for free, while entry to three of the enclosures costs pounds 10 or less.

None the less, the attendance figures will be of considerable interest to those who feel that the Derby belongs on a Wednesday, and despite the counter-attractions, a significant increase on last year's total of 56,000 will be required if the switch to Saturday is to be considered a success.

At Edgbaston, Dennis Amiss, Warwickshire's chief executive, has few such worries. "We're very pleased at the way ticket sales are going," he said yesterday. "We've sold around 18,000 of our 20,000 capacity and we should have 15,000 on Friday, and if people want to watch the football, we've probably got more televisions at the ground than the local shop has for sale.''

The most important factor affecting attendance at Epsom, however, may have nothing to do with the sporting alternatives on offer. If, as seems likely, potential racegoers open their curtains on Saturday morning to find that a fine day is in prospect, the crowds, particularly on the exposed Downs and cheaper enclosures, could swell significantly.

For a true sports fan, after all, there can be no substitute for being there. For those without a Wembley ticket, watching the football on a television at Epsom is little different - and might indeed be rather more atmospheric - than watching from the sofa.

If the weather is kind, the stiff competition which confronts the Derby may have rather less effect than the pessimists might suppose.

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