Magazine article The Spectator

The Turf: Robin Oakley

Magazine article The Spectator

The Turf: Robin Oakley

Article excerpt

Nothing has been lost since William Powell Frith painted his Derby Day panorama in 1858: today, instead of the carriages and corseted courtesans, the acrobats and pickpockets, he could cram his canvas with scarlet-lipped ladies in shades posing for selfies; with men in impeccable morning dress coping no better with greasy hamburgers than Ed Miliband did with his bacon sandwich; and with strolling musicians, from a moustached one-man band to the smartly co-ordinated Dukebox Singers, a sextet of ladies bravely striking up their acapella harmonies against the racing hubbub. But this year it really was all about the racing.

Only two men in horse-racing history have been instantly recognisable to the public inside and outside their sport, no second name required: one is Lester Piggott and the other Frankie Dettori. Fittingly, it was Lester, the winner of nine Derbies, who gave a surprisingly quiet Frankie, who had triumphed at Epsom only once before, the reassurance he needed before this year's race: 'I wish I was on your horse,' the maestro told him. And if a kiss-spraying, shoutingly ebullient Dettori made up for his quietness before the contest by conducting the celebrating crowd afterwards with the exuberance of a whole pit-full of Barbirollis, then he deserved every minute of their adoration.

Because he is so chirpily irresistible and the best showman racing has, a one-man PR agency for the sport, we sometimes forget the quieter qualities this instinctive horseman can demonstrate in the saddle. Golden Horn's owner, the astute owner-breeder Anthony Oppenheimer, had originally doubted he would last the Derby distance before gambling £75,000 on his late supplementary entry for the race. 'Be cool, take your time,' trainer John Gosden had told Frankie, the jockey he had, as a father figure, first helped to mould many years before.

But revved up by the Epsom razamatazz, Golden Horn charged out of the stalls with more excitement than his trainer or jockey would have wished, presenting the kind of dilemma that race riders have half a second to sort out. Fashion, and Lester Piggott, dictate that you need early pace at Epsom and that you cannot afford to get too far adrift of the leaders because of the effort needed to make up the ground later. But quietly yet firmly Frankie won the early argument with his eager mount and put him to sleep at the back of the pack. When Elm Park, unsuited to the firm ground, became lit up and dictated a hot pace early on, going clear of the field with Aidan O'Brien's Hans Holbein, Dettori did not panic and press any buttons prematurely. …

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