Mare gives Gillespie more sleepless nights

Cheltenham's boss dreads a popular invasion.
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The Independent Online
When the lights go out and a horse race starts playing in his head, a terrible nightmare comes to Edward Gillespie. Cheltenham's managing director has had a vision of next Tuesday's Champion Hurdle and he bolts upright, shivering and sweaty, when he imagines Danoli leading home Mysilv.

The former will have followers from every cranny in Ireland at Prestbury Park, while the latter, a gallant mare, is the property of the legions who form the Elite Racing Club. If they make the frame even Gillespie's extraordinary ability to bar the winners' enclosure to all but the closest of connections will be tested.

The aftermath of Danoli's success in the Sun Alliance Novices' Hurdle two years ago provided Gillespie with his greatest Rorke's Drift moment. In a feat of barring that would have impressed the top teams on the doors of Tramps and Stringfellows, he kept what seemed to be an entire, shamrock- bedecked nation at bay (though he was reported to have lost his watch in the scrimmaging).

Gillespie concedes even he will be defeated this time if his nightmare forecast becomes reality. But he does not seem to mind that the collective outbreak will leave his outline in the Gloucestershire turf and footprints on the back of his suit jacket. The crowd reaction is much of what the Festival is about, and the roar that greets next Tuesday's opening event will be harmony to the ears of both Gillespie and true aficionados of jump racing.

What is worrying our man more is his future task of revitalising the Derby. Last year, as managing director of Epsom's owners, United Racecourses, he presided over a first Saturday Derby which was received like a skunk at a forest picnic. A second weekend attempt, on 8 June, will tell us more about the man considered to be at the top of the management tree in British racing.

Gillespie is slick, confident and self-assured and, on the whole, those that employ him find these traits more alluring than do others. But, in an industry that is not yet known for the brilliance of its administration, he shines out and there is little doubt he will be a growing influence in the sport in the years to come.

Gillespie has developed that Teflon quality that enduring careers require. When he abandoned Cheltenham's Tripleprint Gold Cup card in December, five minutes after the first race was scheduled, it was a decision that would have blown others straight out of the water. But an apology, a smile and a pounds 600 fine later, Gillespie was back up and running.

Now comes the big one: to resuscitate a moribund Derby, a race, Gillespie insists, which has to be taken back to the people. Well at least he mixes with them. This interview was conducted over Newcastle Brown Ale and Mackeson in the Prince Albert, Windsor, and Edward even bought his round. This, when it comes to getting a good press, is a manoeuvre that journalists find hard to resist.

The truth is, though, that Gillespie is fluent both in word and mind, and he is not afraid of saying sorry (some would say he gets a lot of practice). He apologises for the 1995 Derby. "Last year everybody assumed a Saturday Derby would have its own momentum and afterwards they realised more should have been done to promote the race," he said. "It was a failing from all points of view, including ours. We spent too much time changing the physical side of Epsom, moving the paddock, changing days and sponsors. We didn't spend the time and money to broaden the general profile of the race.

"An undeniable criticism afterwards was that the race didn't have that extra zip, which it used to have in terms of getting into feature and social pages. There was complacency all round.''

One serious problem about the Derby is that it suffers in comparison to the Grand National, a more televisual event with a diversity of characters. "That is one of the success stories of the Grand National, the media makes something about every single horse," Gillespie said. "In Flat racing it's more difficult, because there is a narrower base. Half the field will be Arab-owned for example.

"The unwritten story is that one of our problems in getting people to identify with the [Derby] horses has been the Arab domination. The owner doesn't say a lot, the trainers daren't say a lot and you don't get much out of the jockeys either. You don't get the great triumvirate talking up their horses.

"By the time we get down to the 16 or so horses that run in the race this year it will have been our job to make sure that everyone knows something incredibly important about each of those runners. I'd like to get a grey in there, and a three-legged horse if possible.''

Negotiations are taking place with both Lanfranco Dettori and Lester Piggott to promote the race. "Frankie Dettori is a very important figure for us, especially as he has not won the Derby," Gillespie said. "Our intention is to get him on things like Live And Kicking and other children's television so they get to know him. People can identify with him and want him to be successful.''

And Lester Keith Piggott, the most successful jockey in Epsom history with nine victories? "Oh, he'll come out of retirement to ride the three- legged grey.''

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