Racing: Derby slips in rankings but upholds its allure

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The Independent Online
LOOKING DOWN from a lofty perch at Epsom you could see that the Derby will never be again what it used to be. Still a pulse-quickening event when the jockeys come under orders in that distant corner but sadly no longer the shoulder-to-shoulder carnival of old.

From gleefully stolen hours on the first Wednesday in June to the first Saturday and a hopeless tussle for the sporting public's live attention. Time was when it would have been impossibe to find space on the Downs for a pup tent never mind buses and marquees.

Times change, maybe for the better, maybe for the worse, but no amount of urgent promotion and sustained ceremony can return the Derby to its former glory.

After Kieren Fallon had brought Oath home to complete the double he set up for himself and trainer Henry Cecil by winning the Oaks on Ramruma, brief forebearance was asked of us in a cinema beneath the stands while interviews went out to "one hundred thousand spectators". Since 2,000 seats in the Grandstand remained unsold on Saturday morning and punters arriving by road were not greatly inconvenienced it could be concluded that an accurate head count hadn't been taken.

While the switch to Saturday has proved successful in arresting the Derby's decline in public reverence there are other problems, most obviously the overwhelming expansion of football, to contend with. "Where can we see the England game?" people asked at a Ladbrokes counter in the grandstand. Once inviolable, the start of the Derby was put back on Saturday to coincide with the half-time interval at Wembley.

Last week saw the Derby competing for space in newspapers and time across the airwaves with an excessively optimistic build-up to England's match against Sweden and the cricket World Cup. Next year it will be run in the first week of the European Championship finals.

But if the Derby has been forced to accept a lesser slot in the sporting calendar it has lost none of its capacity to deliver story lines in keeping with its romantic history.

The fact that no great confidence was held out for any of Saturday's leading fancies and the going remained a matter of conjecture was not detrimental to anticipation or activity around the betting boards but it brought heightened attention to shifts in the market. "Better to have an open Derby than one with a short-priced favourite," an old Epsom hand said.

When the field ambled past most eyes were on No 7, the Saeed bin Suroor- trained Dubai Millennium, who with a record of three wins from three and Frankie Dettori in the saddle was going down as the 5-1 favourite. The triumph many thought Godolphin's principal entry might represent was borne out by a presence in the parade ring that could be described as disdainful.

Then came a change in the weather that may well have proved crucial to the outcome. A forecast of heavy rain didn't materialise until almost an hour after the race but the cloud on which it was borne brought the sort of change in atmosphere that puts a spring in the step of seam bowlers.

From a window looking down on the parade ring it could be seen that Dubai Millennium had suddenly gone from being calm and imperious to fretful and sweaty.

Sensing that Oath might be similarly affected, Cecil gave Fallon licence to risk the fine he would incur for cantering off before the stately procession in front of the stands was completed. It isn't known whether this move proved crucial in settling Oath but the result justified the penalty.

In any case, it soon became clear that Oath was travelling easily under Fallon's touch, his green and white stripes beneath a green cap showing up as they turned at the top of the hill. Oath lost his action a bit there but Fallon's sharp reminder got him balanced again. "I didn't want to risk mine hanging into the camber," Fallon said. "Dalipour was the one to beat but once we were running in the straight I knew mine would take me to the line."

Looking for all the world like a man who moonlights at the door of discotheques, Cecil is now firmly established as British racing's premier trainer with four Derbys and 22 Classics. "We buy the horses and give them to the genius," Oath's smiling owner, Ahmed Salman, said. It helps too when you have a jockey of Fallon's class in the saddle. Upon hearing that, Salman almost broke into a patter of applause to go with the smile on his face.