Magazine article The Spectator

The Derby Buzz

Magazine article The Spectator

The Derby Buzz

Article excerpt

Overhearing on Derby Day a trainer explaining patiently to an owner why his less than distinguished animal had failed to win its race, I was reminded of the slogan the former US Secretary of State Warren Christopher used to have on the side of his tea-mug. `The art of diplomacy,' it declared, `is telling someone to go to hell in terms that will make them think they'll enjoy the journey.' And, if memories of past years tend to be of those departing, in 1997 Peter O'Sullevan, Dick Hern, Singsppiel and Willie Carson, this is a year I will remember more for a great revival. It was the year the Derby got back its buzz.

For years it has been the fashion to moan that the annual `scurry over Surrey' had lost its crowd appeal, that there was no longer something special about the uniquely testing undulating horseshoe which separates the equine men from the boys. But this year the crowds were back. And, while it may not have been a vintage race, the victory of Benny The Dip, owned by Landon Knight, ridden by Willie Ryan and trained by John Gosden, warmed racing hearts. The American owner, confined to a wheelchair, loves his horses above all else. The jockey had spent most of his life educating horses for more fashionable names to ride to glory. And Gosden raised his eyes to heaven in memory of his father 'Towser' who had been too ill with cancer to go on training the 1967 winner Chariottown after his two-year-old days.

In Michael Church's elegantly bound and lovingly compiled The Derby Stakes (available from the Racing Post at 72 plus p&p) we now have the most comprehensive book ever on the Derby, a collector's piece listing everything you might want to know about every race since Diomed triumphed in the first contest in 1780. (Apparently there was as much mourning over his later death in America as there was over George Washington's demise.) Along with memory-jogging illustrations and copious statistics on times, distances, betting and the like, Michael Church gives us a five-generation pedigree of every winner, with race records of every sire and dam. But it is the detail in the essays on every race which intrigue.

Today's cosseted thoroughbreds have it easy. The 1825 winner Middleton was accidentally allowed by the lad plaiting his mane to drink a bucket of water. Trainer James Edwards walked the horse four miles to the course, telling the owner that all the progeny of the dam Web were `fat as pigs'. There was a court case over Bloomsbury, the 1839 winner. who was entered with different breeding details to those in the stud book. …

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