Traditional booze-up loudly shouts it is still alive

Greg Wood finds the crowd's alcoholic content has changed but not the effect
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One Derby veteran was appalled to hear how long it had taken a companion to drive to Epsom on Saturday. "An hour and a quarter from central London?" he said, in genuine amazement. "That's ridiculous. It should be at least two and a half. This is the biggest horse-race in the world."

Twenty years ago, there would have been not a word of argument. Now, it made you wonder if the racecourse managers should have him stuffed and put on display outside the Queen's Stand - the Last Faithful Punter. The Derby is in decline, after all. Dwindling crowds, diminishing status, a rusting reminder of a bygone age. Or so everyone says, with such frequency that it seems to brook no dissent. But have things really changed so much?

One tradition at least was faithfully observed. Just before the first race, a tuneless, thick-tongued chorus of "God Save The Queen" rolled through the Tattersalls' enclosure. It surely had more to do with the imminent kick-off at Wembley than any Royal presence at Epsom, but did at least demonstrate that, be it a Wednesday or a weekend, the male half of London still approaches Derby day as an unmissable excuse to get legless before lunchtime.

When their great-grandfathers did the same, they were fuelled by ale and cider. Now the bars stock German beer and Australian wine, but the only real difference is that the end result is ever more easily achieved in bars which were once shoulder-to-shoulder but on Saturday often saw staff standing idle. Out on the lawn, it was the same story, demonstrated vividly by the father who pushed a pram through Tattersalls, a feat which would have been physically impossible just a decade ago.

But some things never change. The racecourse employee with a clipboard and customer-satisfaction questionnaire knew just where to go to find a captive audience. The queue for the women's toilet stretched out of the door and half-way around the grandstand, and it wasn't satisfied. "Rip-off" was one of the kinder adjectives for the pounds 40 charge for the club enclosure, not least because, despite a pounds 10 reduction on 1995, reserving a seat had risen by a similar amount.

Punters who are growing desperate in a toilet queue, however, are not the most disinterested of judges. As the Derby came and went at an impossibly early hour, the final-furlong uproar - much of it directed at the runner- up - felt every bit as rousing as that which greeted Nashwan, the last winning favourite. Striking, too, was the indifference to the big screen by the furlong pole, relaying events from Wembley.

Even after the Classic, the business of betting and drinking seemed far more important than the football, which makes the decision to bring forward the Derby's off-time seem ill-judged. The racegoers deserved better for their money than to find the main event over less than an hour after the first race, thanks to a football tournament and, you suspect, the prodding of the sponsors.

For what really matters is not how many are there, but whether they enjoy themselves. That the attendance rose, albeit slightly, for this Derby must demonstrate that there are many tens of thousands of people for whom the greatest Classic retains its allure.

They love not just the race but all that surrounds it. The boozing and betting, the chance to rubberneck at B-list celebrities. In the age of unlimited choice, some people may have other things to do on a Saturday. They are unlikely, though, to discover anything better.