Spectacle short on theatricals

Jamie Reid searches in vain for the atmosphere of Derby Days past

The tension had been mounting all week and by lunch-time yesterday Epsom racecourse was in a state of feverish anticipation. This was the day when the judgement of many was on the line and when reputations would be shattered or confirmed by events.

Never mind the gossip about whether the Newmarket B team of Paul Kelleway, Mark Tompkins and Willie Haggas were really up to training a Derby winner. And never mind such academic questions as to whether Dushyantor or Storm Trooper was the pick of Henry Cecil's two runners. The big issue in the minds of the Epsom director, Edward Gillespie, and his staff was, "Would anybody turn up to watch?".

When Gillespie's employers, the Jockey Club-owned Racecourse Holdings Trust, took over the running of Epsom in 1994, they were quick to move the day of the Derby from the traditional first Wednesday in June to the following Saturday. This, we were assured, would revive public interest and boost betting turnover. But last year's Saturday Derby failed to achieve either of those objectives, and so with much more competition around than 12 months ago, this summer's running would revert to its customary slot. Right?

Wrong. Gillespie declared this spring that RHT were engaged in a three- year commercial experiment, and apparently there was no room for "short- termism". A concession to the sporting realities of 1996 would be to schedule an earlier start to the classic, allowing the public the opportunity to readjust their minds, and TV sets, before 3pm.

And so the world's most prestigious thoroughbred horse race was sent off at 2.25pm, sandwiched between a six-furlong handicap and a low-octane affair for apprentices. As a piece of theatrical timing, this was on a par with being shown into a smart restaurant, asking for the menu and then having the main course shoved into your lap before you had even had time to order a drink. The race was thrilling, the result popular and for about two and a half minutes the place was humming. But as a spectacle, it was over far too soon.

Of course, the racing professionals and serious freeloaders packed into the boxes in the Queen's Stand were as numerous as ever, and Gillespie was talking about upwards of 60,000 paying spectators. But what about the ordinary and once- a-year punters? How had they responded? Were there still picnics on the downs, open-top buses, gypsies, and cockneys knocking back the beer and the jellied eels?

They were there if you looked for them, although Hogarth might have been distressed to observe how quickly some of the latter transferred their loyalty to the football on the television screens in the bars. And while the crowding in the stands was quite populist for some, when you looked out on to the hill there was nothing like the great teeming mass of humanity historically associated with Derby Day.

Maybe none of this matters. Maybe yesterday's mixture was as good as it gets and we should all just be grateful for the munificent patronage of Vodafone. And maybe those memories of half a million people cheering on Dancing Brave and Shahrastani on a Wednesday only 10 years ago are just one man's nostalgic fantasies. Maybe.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sheridan Maine: Accounts Assistant

£25,000 - £30,000: Sheridan Maine: Are you looking for a fantastic opportunity...

Neil Pavier: Commercial Analyst

£50,000 - £55,000: Neil Pavier: Are you a professionally qualified commercial ...

Loren Hughes: Financial Accountant

£45,000 - £55,000: Loren Hughes: Are you looking for a new opportunity that wi...

Ashdown Group: IT Support Engineer - Professional Services Firm - Oxford

£21000 - £24000 per annum + 21 days holidays: Ashdown Group: Technical Support...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor