Racing: Punters hover as Derby takes shape

Click to follow
AT EPSOM racecourse yesterday morning, someone employed at the better- heeled end of the newspaper market was discussing the merits of travelling to the Derby by helicopter. "It used to be pounds 170 a head," he said, "but it was definitely worth it to beat the traffic jams. You could sit there for hours and not move. Of course, that was then."

The point which concerns those who run Epsom is that in this context, "then" means little more than 10 years ago. When Dancing Brave ran into traffic problems of his own back in 1986 the only spare turf anywhere was the mile and a half which he had just covered. Since then, the cooling of public affection for the Derby has been both sudden and unexpected. The gypsies have already drawn up their caravans on the Downs, but they must wonder if their funfair will find any customers.

Across the road at the racecourse, though, the 219th Derby is anticipated with cautious confidence, rather the the mixture of false optimism and thinly disguised dread which had become all too familiar. Several enclosures are sold out already, and the attendance on Saturday seems sure to show a significant increase on last year, if only because Heart FM, a London radio station, has chosen the infield to host its annual listeners' picnic.

The irony of this will not be lost on the organisers, as they try to restore the Derby to a position at the heart of the Flat racing season. They must realise, too, that if the great Classic is to stage a recovery, 1998 must surely be the year for it to begin.

It was supposed to start three years ago, of course, when the traditional date on the first Wednesday in June was moved to the following Saturday. There, the Derby found itself in competition with events like Euro'96 and the Ashes Test series, but now, for the first time, the Derby has the weekend's sporting field all to itself.

Above all, though, the race has a talking point which no amount of money can buy. For the first time since long before even Lester Piggott was riding, the winners of both the 2,000 Guineas and 1,000 Guineas are expected to do battle at Epsom. Godolphin, the owners of Cape Verdi, took advantage of the newly instituted supplementary entry stage to add their filly to the field, a gesture of rare sporting endeavour which deserves to capture the public imagination.

The uncertainty over whether Cape Verdi would join the colts on Saturday may have done little for the ante-post betting market, and the exact size and composition of Aidan O'Brien's team will not be determined until his three entries, King Of Kings, Second Empire and Saratoga Springs, have galloped at Ballydoyle this morning. As soon as the final field has started to crystallise, however, the sluice will be raised on a months'-worth of suppressed urges to punt.

A total of 16 names remained after yesterday's five-day declaration stage, with Croco Rouge, the French Derby runner-up, the most notable one missing, if only because the murmurs after Sunday's race at Chantilly indicated that he might still cross the Channel.

Two of the entries, Sunshine Street and Pegnitz, fall into the game-but- hopeless category, to leave 14 who could go to post with at least an outside chance of a place in racing history.

The precise size of the field on Saturday is still anyone's guess, yet despite the fact that Second Empire can still be backed "with a run", the bookmakers are unanimous that he will not only start this weekend, but start favourite too, with Mick Kinane holding the reins. This is not simply because they fear O'Brien - although they do - but also because there are no significant ante-post liabilities about Cape Verdi.

Quite the opposite, in fact, since many thousands of pounds had already been staked on the filly winning the Oaks, with the result that any last minute plunges on Friday's Classic, like the money which saw Cloud Castle backed from 10-1 to 5-1 with Ladbrokes yesterday, can be absorbed with a smirk.

It is the Derby, though, which now demands and deserves all the attention. Sadian, Henry Cecil's runner, is said to have worked well yesterday, while Barry Hills, who runs the 25-1 chance The Glow-Worm, said yesterday that the colt is as good as either Blue Stag or Glacial Storm, both of whom finished second at Epsom. At a pre-Derby lunch, Classic veterans including Dick Hern and Geoff Lewis tipped Greek Dance, and there was a word too for Gulland if, as seems possible, some rain arrives before the weekend.

In short, no one has the faintest idea what will win on Saturday, which is just as it should be. If those who have stayed at home for the last decade agree, then a helicopter may once again be the only way to travel.