Racing: Why racing must act to stem the Derby's decline: A once great race is in trouble and next Wednesday's Classic is unlikely to reverse the trend. Richard Edmondson calls for change

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The Independent Online
NOSTALGIA pervades all sports, and in racing it manifests itself most greatly in the run-up to the first Wednesday in June. The Derby, the buffers say at this time of the year, is not the race it used to be.

These days, though, there is evidence that the sentimentalists may be right and that Britain's premier horse race may be plummeting in both prestige and quality.

Epsom is certainly not the occasion it was when the business of the House used to be suspended and the Magic Boomerang went up as normal activities were frozen to permit viewing. Old photographs show the Downs packed with racegoers. These days, a game of rounders is almost possible on the infield.

The Classic jockeys, who began charting a helicopter to get themselves to the racecourse, are largely back to more traditional transport. 'The boys say you can drive in pretty comfortably now,' says Walter Swinburn. It is to be hoped that the impending switch of the Classic to a weekend will turn this trend round.

Swinburn has ridden two Derby winners, the first of them on the hugely gifted Shergar 13 years ago, and he has noticed a decline in the race even in that time. 'These days you notice the gaps in the crowd and something has definitely changed,' he says.

'It's still the race for a British jockey to win, but I'm not so sure about the others. Ten or 15 years back if you'd asked Yves Saint Martin (the multiple French champion) he'd have said the Derby and meant ours, but that's changed.'

As has the Derby's enduring lustre. Gone are the times when the Blue Riband winner imprinted his performance indelibly on that year's racing. The fickle and short memories of sports followers, coupled with the advent of the late- season Breeders' Cup Series and an increasingly prestigious Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, have forced the Epsom Classic still further back in the mind.

Drastic gestures are needed if the Derby winner is to both captivate on the Surrey Downs and remain a major force near the end of the season's drum roll. A drastic gesture such as putting the race back six weeks.

'If we're going to compete in races such as the Arc or the Breeders' Cup it would be far easier if the Classics were put back a month or so,' Swinburn says. But tradition, which in racing has the capacity for survival of Captain Scarlet, 'will probably stop that', the jockey believes.

A later Derby would also give time for the season's top horse to stand up. (Next week's Classic will be run under the very real spectre that the winner will not turn out to be as good a horse as either Alriffa or Cicerao, two late-maturing horses who were not among the entries).

Epsom's owners, like mechanics emptying the ash-tray as the big-end lies in bits, are at the moment tinkering with the entry system but failing to address the main problem; that the Derby cannot be the Derby if the best middle-distance horse in Britain does not run in it.

John Gosden, the Newmarket trainer, advocates a late supplementary stage to get round this and is another believer in putting the race back. 'If it was run in July, when all the three-year-olds had been out and had a few runs, anything that was a real athlete would emerge and you would have a far more contentious race,' he says.

Prize money, for once, does not seem a problem. Race organisers have consistently observed that the Derby has to offer a fabulous pot to maintain its global position, and will be heartened by the pounds 800,000 available next week, a sum which surpasses the Arc. This figure, though, has been achieved by placing an untenable burden on owners and the financial security of the race will be guaranteed only when the wider question of how much bookmakers return to the sport is resolved.

Perhaps the most damaging of all the accusations put forward is that the horses running in the Derby today are simply not as good as they used to be. This idea is not just for the misty minds either; there are those inside the business who give it air-time.

Gosden is one trainer who believes that hardiness is being sucked out of the modern breed. That for a well-bred colt in today's world the most important day seems not to be in the June of his Classic career, but the one when he is led around the sales ring as a yearling.

'I'm not sure horses are as tough and mature as they used to be,' the Newmarket trainer says. 'There are a lot of sales-prepared yearlings and not the naturally shed-reared animals that have been out in the fields banging around.' One word explains why present-day yearlings are more likely to be prepared by a beautician than a ranch-hand: money. 'Over the last 15 years there has been a development and hyping-up of sales because of the increase in prices,' Gosden says. 'There has been a change in emphasis and that does show. But when you get some of these yearlings home they just melt on you.'

In addition, there seems to be a dwindling pool of thoroughbreds born to the job, fewer horses capable of lasting out a mile and a half. This is because British racing, as the nation itself often does unwisely, has imported a firm creed from the United States, in this case that pure speed is omnipotent. 'Stamina is not a big thing over there and we're getting that attitude over here and it's worrying for a race like the Derby,' Swinburn says. 'Stamina and speed are the signs of a good racehorse, and we haven't had one for a while.

'All the great horses, Troy, Nijinsky and Shergar, had the blend, but now there are a lot of non-stayers in the Derby. It's been very noticeable over the last few years that horses that have no right to do well have come from impossible positions to stay on and grab a place.' (Last year, the minor placings were filled by the unfancied trio of Blue Judge, Blues Traveller and Cairo Prince. None of them has subsequently won a race).

Great races are made by great horses, and the Derby has been graced by behemoths of the turf down the years. But it must be said that the last four victors hardly went on to resplendent glory and that an attention-stimulating champion is now overdue. As King Kong showed on Broadway, a giant pulls in the customers.

However, Walter Swinburn, believes the very opposite could happen on Wednesday afternoon. 'I think that if the recent winners ran in the Derby 10 years ago they'd be doing well to reach the frame,' he says. 'The overall standard has dropped because they don't breed Derby winners any more.

'This year it's very open, and a horse that's won just once or twice might be the answer. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if a maiden came and won it.'

(Photograph omitted)

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