Shaamit show just starting

For those who watched the cockerel introducing Movietone news while in short trousers, the Derby scene will have been unrecognisable on Saturday. Where once the only bare spaces were on the crowns of middle- aged men there are now great swathes of unoccupied grassland. The Derby as a folk festival is not what it was.

The attendance was actually up 3.6 per cent to 56,253 compared with last year's first Saturday Derby, a figure which has persuaded United Racecourses, Epsom's owners, that they should stick with the weekend option rather than reverting to the traditional Wednesday.

This is not a sentiment shared by the bookmakers. It is a measure of the complexity of the Derby's ills that even the men who guard their money like an alligator defends its young are confused about the Blue Riband. These were the characters who walked abreast with the pro-Saturday banners just two years ago but are now equally adamant the race must be returned to mid-week. Almost 20 on-course pitches were deserted on Saturday, general betting turnover on the Classic was down about 20 per cent and speculation on football rivalled Derby wagering.

When the layers pass the petition round they will not be able to rely on the signature of Edward Gillespie, UR's director of racing. "My impression is that the meeting has found a nice equilibrium and can go upwards from its Saturday position," he said yesterday. "I don't think you can make it any better just by putting it on a Wednesday."

He may be right. The middle of the week may rip away the counter attractions that this weekend offered, but old-time, shoulder-to-shoulder Derbys have disappeared and can no longer be used as a yardstick.

The happy myth about the Derby is that it used to be a day of relief for the whole of the East End on their way to summer employment in the hop fields of Kent. Well, machines have now replaced fingers in the garden of England and London's docklands have changed irrevocably.

Until World War II, that area did have a constituency that went en masse to Epsom from their (so-called) chummy slums. The housing redevelopment of the 1950s and decline of the Port of London was followed by the exodus of some of the traditional Eastenders. The core that buttressed the Derby was dismantled and that was the beginning of the end. Imagine what the Cheltenham Festival (which has the throbbing mass once the boast of the Downs) would be like without the Irish presence.

In the black and white days of broadcasting it was worth attending the Derby on the simple level that you could get a better view than in your lounge. With the advancement of technology that factor has been reversed. Given the choice of sweating your way to Epsom on Saturday or occupying an armchair (fridge fully stocked) and channel surfing between racing, international football and Test cricket there appeared only one victor.

Gillespie and his team underpinned this year's race with a selection of promotional events and record spending on advertising. They did all they could, but the Derby is too far gone to be resuscitated by gimmickry

But the event still has no peer as a racing championship. Any horse that can survive the demanding geography of the Surrey downlands is worthy of the ultimate praise.

The part of Lester Piggott in Shaamit's win may have been hugely overplayed, but the old boy did have some input. Michael Hills, the winner's pilot, watched a dozen Derby videos with Piggott and made note of the occasional one-liners that came his way. "He didn't give me instructions as such, but general advice that struck a chord with me," Hills said yesterday. "His thoughts kept popping up in my head during the race."

Beforehand, Shaamit had looked magnificent and easily won the swimwear section of the contest. He also had the courage to match his looks.

It is to the colt's great credit that as such an inexperienced horse he survived Saturday's Wrestlemania. Participants at Pamplona gain easier passages than many managed in this Derby. Shaamit took all this and wanted more. "When the horses came round me, pulling up, he ran on again and I couldn't pull him up," Hills said. "So if anything came to him in a race I think he'd rally."

Hills's problem is to consider where he throws his hat if Shaamit and Geoff Wragg's outstanding Pentire ever meet, while Willie Haggas, the Derby winner's trainer, is concerned with persuading Khalifa Dasmal that his colt should be supplemented for the Irish Derby.

"If the Irish race is worth pounds 360,000 and it's pounds 60,000 to enter then, in effect, it's putting your money on a 6-1 shot and I'm sure he wouldn't be that price," Haggas said yesterday. "The horse is very inexperienced and that [not many people call the Derby "that"] should have done him a lot of good mentally. You'd like to think he'd improve."

Haggas may never have mopped a factory floor but his mind is not crowded by fancy ideas. He is one of the most approachable young men in racing and, importantly, he is going to argue for Shaamit to be kept in training as a four-year-old. "It's important that if Khalifa decides to keep him in training as a four-year-old we don't abuse him this year," he said. "If we can agree on that then we won't overdo him this season.

"If you go on to train them as four-year-olds you can't have your cake and eat it. You can't milk them too much during their Classic year."

If a positive note can be drawn from the weekend then this is it. Only three horses have won a Derby on their seasonal debut this century. Shaamit has managed that and holds the promise of a victory tour which may make him only the second Derby winner in the last 10 years to compete after his Classic year.


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