By David Elsworth From Cheltenham Gold Cup To Epsom Classic
The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
History clings to Epsom Downs like an early-morning mist. Spectacular duelling to the winning post, romance, heroism, tragedy, scandal, politics have all borne influence over the running of the Derby since its inception in 1780. Close your eyes for a second and even in the comparative tranquillity of the Surrey racecourse nine days before this year's renewal, one can imagine the commotion of Derby Day 1881, when Harvester shared a dead heat with St Gatien and James Jewitt became the first trainer to complete a Grand National- Derby double.
A quartet of celebrated names have followed: George Blackwell, Richard Dawson, Willie Stephenson and, most recently, the godfather of the Turf, Vincent O'Brien, who threw in a Cheltenham Gold Cup for good measure. That is a feat David Elsworth could emulate should his Salford Mill gallop his rivals into the ground on Saturday and propel the 67-year-old Salisbury-born trainer into immortality.
"If I was lucky enough to have won them both, I'd feel more than lucky. Christ, that'd be fantastic," he enthuses in that familiar Wiltshire burr, as he scrutinises Flat racing's ultimate obstacle course from the rare perspective of a man who overcame jump racing's most daunting challenge, the Grand National, with the 1988 winner Rhyme 'N' Reason. "A few people have won both, like Vincent O'Brien did, but then he won everything, didn't he? But I just want to win this, so that I can say, 'I've won the Derby, a race that's part of our country's sporting heritage'. It's the big deal, the Derby, isn't it? Even when I was a kid in short pants I knew what the Derby was about."
His memories here as a trainer can be traced back a quarter of a century, to 1982, when his Tidworth Tattoo finished 11th. Two years later, he was as close to victory as he has ever been from his 11 runners when Mighty Flutter, at 66-1, finished third behind Secreto and El Gran Senor.
Remarkably, considering the manner in which he has garnered big- race victories, Elsworth has never won a British Classic. It has been more his association with iconic racehorses that has established a reputation which has sustained his career, though he interrupts with mockmodesty: "I have been champion trainer, you know..."
Elsworth is aware, though, that anyone who bears the epithet of "Mr Desert Orchid" tends to get noticed by prospective owners primarily for that fact, just as he was for his association with the mighty Persian Punch. Not that he is commonly known as "Mr Punch", except when his candour gets the better of diplomacy. Rather as it did on Thursday following what could be described - given his Derby horse's owner Tony Thompson's fascination with the works of L S Lowry - as trouble at Mill.
Salford Mill, a 45,000-guinea purchase by his trainer, had failed to work encouragingly in a Newmarket gallop. Here, on Thursday morning, his gallop with a lead horse on that downland seemingly kinked by the gods to provide the severest of tests for three-year- olds and their riders, a conundrum of gradients, bends and cambers, was, to the untutored eye, satisfactory rather than scintillating.
"The ground was a concern," he says. "If it did come up soft, it would be a major concern. He has won his races on fast ground, and I don't think he copes with cut, and he does take a bit of time to get into top gear. I'd be less than honest if I said that this may not be his ideal course."
It possibly was not quite what the Epsom executives, in the prelude to their [pound]1.25 million showpiece, wanted to hear at their "Breakfast With The Stars", during which trainers trial their entries in front of the media and racing enthusiasts.
The race will always thrive on an imperious victor who may just prove to be the finest colt of his generation, and this year that may well be the Peter Chapple-Hyam-trained, Frankie Dettori- partnered, hot favourite Authorized. …