Nothing beats a Derby Day thrill ride to immortality on racing's Epsom rollercoaster

·5-min read
All human life descends on Epsom for the Cazoo Derby - with a history dating back 241 years it's still racing's greatest prize.
All human life descends on Epsom for the Cazoo Derby - with a history dating back 241 years it's still racing's greatest prize.

By James Toney at Epsom

There's nothing quite like Derby Day, a quintessentially British occasion of pomp and circumstance with outfits straight from the pages of Bridgerton.

It brings Rollers and double deckers, princes and plasterers, queens, both regal and Pearlie, to this verdant flash of tumbling Surrey countryside.

It's a race you can only win once, a race that has framed the history of its sport for 241 years, the ultimate test of equine excellence with many global imitations but no real equal.

In sport there is always another chance to make amends for scuffing your shot - though not in the Derby, open only to three-year-old colts and requiring the perfect alchemy of speed, stamina and balance to tackle the undulating cambers of this most unique racetrack on the outskirts of London.

It's a one and done shot for sporting immortality and to paraphrase a famous quote, the thoroughbred only exists because of one piece of wood: the winning post at Epsom.

You will find all human life here, the great, the good and the not so good. There are Lords, Ladys and lags, A-listers and Z-listers, stars of Hollywood and Love Island, some of those seemingly fake sprayed to the exact colour of their favourite chestnut gelding.

For years this has been the East End's big day out, they'd roll out the barrels with a knees-up on Epsom's crowded hill - a place where truly anything goes - and then roll, or sometimes crawl, home.

But for the last two years the People's Race has been missing its greatest asset - its people. In 2020 a ring of steel was even thrown around the Downs to keep their noses pressed to the fence.

“I couldn’t hear anything around me,” recalls winning jockey Emmet McNamara. “All I could hear was the horse breathing.”

On Saturday you won't be able to hear yourself think, let alone the thundering hooves as they bowl around the hairpin Tattenham Corner on a downhill charge to the finishing line, for the winning jockey a giddying thrill ride on racing's greatest rollercoaster.

Legends are made here and there are plenty of great storylines too among the well-bred bloodlines of the 17 horses that will go to post at 4.30pm.

Sir Michael Stoute won his first Derby 41 years ago with the legendary Shergar, a horse whose stunning ten length victory was eclipsed by his tragic and mysterious kidnapping, one of sport's great unsolved stories.

He will look for Derby win number six with lightly-raced favourite Desert King while Aidan O'Brien - fresh from winning a record 41st English Classic - looks to the do Oaks-Derby double for fourth time with three Irish raiders, Stone Age, Changingoftheguard and Star of India.

“The thoroughbred breed is based on the Epsom Derby, it’s the ultimate test of the racehorse," said O'Brien, who boasts a record eight wins in the race. "It is physical and mental, they have to get the trip, they have to have pace, they have to act on the track.

"This race is just the ultimate test, it's a unique track that goes up, down, left and right, it just defines our sport and the atmosphere is like nowhere else. All these things add up and you need a very, very special horse to win it.

"It's intense racing here, it's a test of temperament for everyone, horses, jockeys, trainers and spectators. As soon as you arrive in Epsom people everywhere are right on top of you - even riding to the start is intense, there is just nothing quite like it."

The Cazoo Derby is a centrepiece of the Platinum Jubilee celebrations but The Queen is watching her favourite sports event at home, only the third race she's missed in her reign (Reuters/Beat Media Group subscription)
The Cazoo Derby is a centrepiece of the Platinum Jubilee celebrations but The Queen is watching her favourite sports event at home, only the third race she's missed in her reign (Reuters/Beat Media Group subscription)

You know you've reached a special place in sporting folklore when you are known by one name but Frankie (Dettori) has won just two Derbys in 26 starts to date, a note of caution for those who still like to back him blind.

However, he has a decent outside chance on Piz Badile, who is trained by Aidan's son Donnacha, looking to become the youngest trainer to win flat racing’s most coveted prize.

Charlie Appleby is racing's in-form trainer and also fires three at the race with the impressive Nations Pride his pick.

It's not unknown for outsiders to upset predictions, Aboyeur won at odds of 100-1 in 1913 and Wings of Eagles came home at 40-1 five years ago, having never previously won a race.

So how about Sonny Liston to deliver a knockout blow for jockey Tom Marquand at big odds, despite a top three finish in his trial race?

"Any rain won't worry him," said trainer Charlie Hills, with steady rain greeting early arrivals at the track. "He's got a handy draw next to the favourite and I think he'll stay the trip well."

And for those who like to pick on names how about Royal Patronage on Platinum Jubilee weekend? However, a stall one draw - there's only been three winners from that berth in the last 55 years - may be off-putting.

But two of Derby day's greatest stars are conspicuous by their absence on Saturday.

It remains a showpiece of her Platinum Jubilee celebrations but the Queen will be watching at home in Windsor. It's a race in which her knowledge is so encyclopaedic it's said she can recall every winner through her decades on the throne, whether the same can be said of her 14 Prime Ministers is less clear.

Before the pandemic, she'd only missed the race twice in 70 years and next year will be seven decades since her horse Aureole came second, just a few days after her Coronation.

In the sport of Kings, Lester Piggott wore the crown, winning this race a record nine times, first as a teenager and 29 years later aged 57.

The Derby made him a man, then made him a legend and the trainer, horse and jockey that win on Saturday will be standing on the slender shoulders of his greatness.

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