Racing against football
First the commercial. Last week this col- umn offered three horses to fill the first three places in the Derby: Dushyantor, Glory of Dancer and Shaamit. They fin- ished first, second and fourth, although not, alas, in precisely the order suggested.
By 'doing a Lammtarra' and winning the big race at 12-1 without the benefit of a previous outing this season, Shaamit cast renewed doubt on the value of those tradi- tional Classic trials which we analyse so painstakingly each year. The son of Mtoto, out of a Habitat mare, also provided a wel- come reminder that you do not have to have a 100-horsepower stable to be in with the chance of winning a Classic: Willie Haggas has just 42 in his Newmarket yard and that is 16 more than Glory of Dancer's handler Paul Kelleway. The winning trainer told racegoers that the winning owner Khalifa Dasmal had 'driv- en me bonkers over the past month'. I should think so too. He had, after all, been persuaded to stump up 8,000 crisp and cracklies to make a late entry for the race with a horse who was not going to see a race- course before the Epsom meeting. In those circumstances I too would have been on the blower with the regularity of a P.G. Wode- house nephew with expectations inquiring after the health of an indulgent aunt. Train- ers are not there merely to bring their horses to peak fitness on the day: they have to get their owners there with unfevered brows as well, hence the size of the drinks cupboards most of them keep.
There were other lessons to be learned from this year's Derby, a pretty rough and tumble affair. For years it used to be said that French jockeys cannot handle Epsom's gradients and turns. Well, on Glory of Dancer France's star Olivier Peslier did it better than a number of the British veter- ans who finished behind him. On Por- tuguese Lil, who inevitably finished last, the first woman rider Alex Greaves did nothing wrong. And Dushyantor's defeat, as Jockeys Association secretary Michael Caulfield pointed out to me, confirmed the old saying that no horse beaten in the Dante has yet gone on to win the Derby.
Henry Cecil though cannot be anything other than a happy man. When Sheikh Mohammed's horses were taken away from him last year some said he would never be the same force again. But while the Sheikh's racing empire took the 2,000 Guineas with Mark of Esteem Cecil has not only been second in the Derby, he took the 1,000 Guineas with Bosra Sham and had a runaway win in the Oaks with Lady Carla. Both will make lovely mares and Wafic Said, who owns both, has promised that Cecil will train their offspring too. 'Let me know if you change your mind, others have,' said Cecil pointedly in a reference to the dispute which has given an added edge to this season's results.
The Derby meeting marked the debut, as British Horseracing Board chairman, of Lord Wakeham. When he took on one of his earlier posts as Tory Chief Whip a traditionalist advised him that there were three essentials in the job: no vote on Derby day, light whipping for Royal Ascot week and 'get the House up before Good- wood'. But even in 1983 such traditions were waning and on Saturday you could count the number of MPs at Epsom on the fingers of one hand. The overall crowd was up from 54,000 to 56,000, a reasonable achievement given the competition of the opening day of the Euro 96 football and a Test match, but nothing like what Epsom used to attract in the old days. The question now is whether United Racecourses and their new MD Sue Ellen will persevere with the Saturday or switch the Derby back to the traditional Wednes- day. Traditionalists like the Home Secre- tary favour Wednesday. So do leading bookmakers Hills and Ladbrokes, who had originally favoured change but have seen no increase in their betting revenue. The smart money says they will get their way. I hope they do not. The Derby should be a race for the true racing public, not just for managing directors and corporate enter- tainers, which is what it is likely to become on a Wednesday. At least let them experi- ment with Saturday for one more year when the fixture will not be clashing with European football. And if betting revenue is the criterion, how could that be judged this year when the race was run absurdly early at 2.25 p.m. to fit in with the football? Half of those who might have had a bet simply would not have realised that the race was not in its usual mid-afternoon slot.
Robin Oakley is political editor of the BBC.