The long and tortuous road to a glorious high on Epsom Downs

Omens on the course were as gloomy as the weather. But, Stan Hey says, everyone emerged a winner
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The Independent Football

In the list of "One Hundred Ways of Doing Your Brains In", watching England in a World Cup game and going horse-racing have always been right up in the top five. So it was a particularly brave collection of sporting souls who took themselves off to Epsom last Friday, first to watch the England-Argentina match on the racecourse's network of televisions and giant viewing screens, and then to stay on to find the winners of seven races.

In the list of "One Hundred Ways of Doing Your Brains In", watching England in a World Cup game and going horse-racing have always been right up in the top five. So it was a particularly brave collection of sporting souls who took themselves off to Epsom last Friday, first to watch the England-Argentina match on the racecourse's network of televisions and giant viewing screens, and then to stay on to find the winners of seven races.

Images of lemmings migrating towards their collective fate sprang to mind as the red buses climbed away from Epsom station and up the hill to the famously bleak course on the Downs. The pessimism generated by England's performance against Sweden had deepened that morning after the Swedes beat Nigeria.

The weather, borrowed straight from Wuthering Heights, was the last in a series of bad omens. You could hardly see across the racecourse for the curtain of mist and drizzle that hung over it. Conclusive proof of England's likely fate came from Gary Wiltshire, the Victor Pua-sized rails bookmaker, who was offering big odds of 3-1 on an England win as he hunched underneath his "mush". "I've taken a few quid," he muttered, without sounding inundated.

Those watching the big screen opposite the stands risked hypothermia. In the long bar beneath the main stand, it was at least dry, but the televisions were perched so high that you would have had a neck-ache just from watching the warm-up. But this hadn't deterred 300 or so fans, including one with a David Beckham wig, comprising a pink plastic skull-cap with furrow of rat fur running across it, Mohawk-style. In the end, I settled for a berth in the Paddock Lawn Bar, under the summer garden parasols that had now become parapluies. At one end of the open-air bar, a single television had been placed on the counter, and as the game got under way, Alan Green's commentary boomed out from the racecourse Tannoys.

The blood and thunder of the early tackles, was matched by the weather turning even worse. A huge vase of flowers was blown over as if felled by Sol Campbell, while the wind rushed under the parasols and shook loose the gathering rainwater sending it plunging down the necks of those huddled below.

Comforted by rounds of salt beef sandwiches and glasses of Pimm's – this could be the next big flavour from Walker's crisps – the cluster of fans gradually found some optimism in England's fierce tackling and a booking for Gabriel Batistuta.

Then Michael Owen was suddenly set free by a Nicky Butt pass – and the television promptly fused as the rain finally overwhelmed it. Over the Tannoy we heard the words "hit" and "post", but it was another 10 minutes before a repair-man could restore vision to go with the Tannoy's commentary.

As the picture flickered between bleary colour and evocative black-and-white, Owen tumbled. Penalty! The country gent in the tweed jacket, the girls on the seafood stall, the lady who cut the salt-beef, all the staff on the bar, the Irish woman who had told us what an "eejit" Roy Keane was – all gathered closer to the television.

And then the roar around Epsom echoed the one from Sapporo as Beckham drove home the spot-kick. Chairs tumbled, strangers hugged, jigs were danced. Becks even seemed to have stopped the rain for a few moments.

Watching from the stands in the second half, with Motty now ranting on the commentary, the huge beer tent on The Hill rippled with groans and gasps as shots from Owen, Paul Scholes and Teddy Sheringham nearly made it two. The rain and wind returned, providing an operatic back-drop for the heroic defence of England's goal.

After an eternity, the final whistle went, and the rock band behind the stand quickly burst into "Three Lions". In the seething long bar a chorus of "Vindaloo" also broke out. Then the Tannoy announced the start of racing.

It was time for the other business of the day. And though two German horses won the big races, nobody seemed to mind. After all, they had witnessed the most memorable victory at Epsom since Shergar.

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