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.

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