Old aura returns to Epsom

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The Independent Online
There was a loud cheer when the announcer called Benny The Dip's number first, just seconds after he and Silver Patriarch had passed the post locked in desperate opposition, as several thousand punters celebrated his victory. In fact, the PA was simply confirming, as it always does, that "the horses involved in the photograph are, in racecard order . . . ", and the backers' delight might still have proved premature. But for the managers of Epsom racecourse, the misunderstanding was cause for celebration.

Suddenly, it was clear that their attempt to coax first-time racegoers back to what used to be the nation's favourite day at the races had been a resounding success. After a decade of public indifference, the trend of dwindling attendances had not simply been halted, but flung into reverse, with 72,000 paying to watch the Derby, more than a quarter as many again as 12 months previously.

The most welcome discovery was that the relationship between attendance and atmosphere is exponential. There were 28 per cent more people, but the mood was improved by 100 per cent.

On Derby day 1996, the bar staff were so under-employed that they spent their time trying to attract your attention. Not so on Saturday, when the only bar without a six-deep queue was the one in the tented village which had run out of beer.

Long before the first race, you could sense a feeling that life was already pretty good and was about to get even better. The reaction of a woman sitting on the terracing when a large, unsteady man collapsed on top of her was an indication of the mood. There was no annoyance or aggression, simply a prolonged giggle.

Somehow, the unique excitement of Derby day had been recaptured, every bit as suddenly as it had been lost almost a decade ago. No one has ever adequately explained what went wrong, or why it did so almost in the space of 12 months.

When Nashwan set sail for home in 1989, he was greeted by a blood-curdling roar from tens of thousands squeezed into the stand and packed tight and deep along the rails all the way to Tattenham Corner and beyond. Yet just a season later, Quest For Fame failed to raise even a whiff of excitement from a sharply depleted crowd, and from that moment on, things only got worse.

Now, at last, we have had a Derby day which improved on the one before, and even the horses played their part, with the closest of finishes. True, the infield fell a long way short of the teeming bedlam of former days, but even there, the close up of Benny The Dip's long run for the line revealed a dense mass of faces inside the running rail, and many hundreds of fists punching him home with Willie Ryan.

Leaving Epsom on Saturday evening, you could imagine all those first- timers resolving to return next year, bring their friends, and who knows, maybe even hire one of the double-deckers. For Sue Ellen and the Epsom officials, it is only a beginning, but now, at least, the momentum in on their side, and that in itself is quite an achievement.