Asked about playing opposite Alan Ladd in The Great Gatsby, Carole Mathews recalled: "He stood on a box, and I wore tennis shoes." For some 15 years, Clare Balding and Willie Carson have operated on similar terms – with the difference that they incorporated the disparity into a kind of screwball evangelism, on behalf of a sport that today celebrates its ability to unite all walks of life. Sadly, for many who depend on television to bring it to life, today is the last time Balding and Carson align their different tones before the BBC surrenders the Investec Derby to Channel 4.
Fate may yet afford Balding a fitting valediction, as the second favourite is trained by her brother, Andrew. Carson has been guaranteed one, however, as the official guest of honour. It is a distinction that invites more dignified consideration of the five-time champion jockey, now in his 70th year, whose antics before the camera should not demean the subtle, ruthless insights obtained during a career that yielded four Derby winners.
"If you notice, it's nearly always the same little group of jockeys that win Derbys," he says. He notes that both Lester Piggott and Walter Swinburn first did so as teenagers; last year, Mickael Barzalona did the same, and today Joseph O'Brien aims to follow suit on the hot favourite, Camelot.
"But these kids, they don't understand all the things that can go wrong," Carson says. "Older jockeys know all the pitfalls, and they're all in your head. That's why you do get nervous, when you're on a good one.
"I would have been nervous, riding Camelot. I wouldn't have shown it, and I would have been confident. But there's still something eating away at you. What can go wrong? So you play the percentages a bit. Experience brings its benefits, of course it does. And Lester was a one-off, he never worried about anything. But these kids haven't had a disappointment in their lives."
He seems mesmerised by the way O'Brien is meeting the pressures that accompany his privileges as stable jockey to his father, Aidan, at Ballydoyle. "That kid is unbelievable," Carson says. "It reminds me so much of Lester, what's happened, with the father a trainer. But he's got his own mind, his own way of thinking. Maybe he won't last [on account of his weight]. And maybe he's been brought up with the silver spoon. But probably that's part of his success. He's been put on proper horses from the beginning. He wasn't allowed to make mistakes."
To his credit, Carson is candid in his assessment of the opportunity beckoning these young bucks from Ireland and France. He believes there is room at the top in Britain, and does not tiptoe around the reputations of two men hired by the Maktoum family, after finishing first and second in the championship last year. "There are hardly any world-class jockeys riding in Britain today," he observes. "Look at the jump jockeys. There must be nearly 15 of them that are top-class. But on the Flat there is this dearth. I suppose there are no jocks like me any more: no more tiny little wimps. I was a war baby, see. [Silvestre] De Sousa's not world-class, [Paul] Hanagan's not – not yet, nowhere near. They have to break through."
He does not discount that possibility, in fairness. But he retains a proud affinity with the Sheikh Hamdan silks, now worn by Hanagan, having won the Derby on Nashwan (1989) and Erhaab (1994) in the same service. Nashwan, of course, pulled off the same double that beckons Camelot today, having already won the 2,000 Guineas.
Carson rates Nashwan best of his Derby winners, in pure ability, but Troy – his first, at the 11th attempt, in 1979 – produced the best performance on the day. "He beat a very strong field," he recalls. "And didn't just beat them. He thrashed them. Nashwan got a soft year, to be honest. But he was just electric. It was like putting your finger in a socket. He could have won over any distance, five furlongs to a mile and a half."
Like Henbit in 1980, both Troy and Nashwan were trained by Dick Hern, a formidable stickler of the old school. The Major was consummate in the art of bringing a Derby colt to its peak. "But they didn't stay there very long," he admits. "If you look at his record, he did not have many winners in October. He'd squeezed the lemon too tight by then."
Notoriously, Nashwan seemed to emerge almost as a reproof to perhaps the unhappiest episode in the monarch's long career on the Turf. Hern, confined to a wheelchair by a hunting accident, had been given notice at the royal stables in West Ilsley and, deeply wounded, found sanctuary in a new yard built by Sheikh Hamdan. "Nashwan brought tears to a lot of eyes," Carson says. "He popped up as if to say: look, the Major can still train, from a wheelchair. No way would he allow himself to become a failure. He was so determined. But you could see the frustration in him, at evening stables. Everyone always says it was about touching their legs, but that's rubbish. It was the body – feeling how tight it was, how silky, feeling those ribs, and all the training, week by week, quietly getting there, until two weeks before the big day he'd look the horse in the eye and feel that lovely, smooth hardness."
Now Carson must witness another poignant, controversial separation – between the national broadcaster and this institution of British life. There is no self-pity. He says he has never been happier than with the foals and mares on his Gloucestershire stud. None the less, he is aghast. "What a disaster," he says. "Terrible. At the end of the day, all they had to do was put the cheque down. It doesn't matter to me. I'm old. I'm finished. But I think they're sore. I think they'll be back."