There can be no higher honour for a horse racing commentator than to call the Investec Derby as the most iconic Flat race in the World remains a unique sporting occasion with a history to match its prestige.
First run in 1780, the racecourse high across Epsom Downs, from where central London can be viewed in the distance, poses the ultimate test of a thoroughbred over a stiff mile and a half, beginning with a punishing uphill run in the early stages followed by the tumble-down to the famous Tattenham Corner and then a steeply cambered home straight.
It is an examination of a horse’s ability, stamina and versatility with, at stake, not only a place in racing’s hall of fame but huge prize money and an even more lucrative future as a stallion.
Yet to attain such notoriety, a Derby winner needs to be well advanced physically as the race is confined to three-year-olds who are normally racing in just their second season.
The situation is entirely different over jumps in which most of the horses race as geldings (and are therefore unable to procreate), are generally much older, carry bigger weights and race over longer distances.
For example, the Champion Hurdle is run over two miles, the Cheltenham Gold Cup three and a quarter miles and the Grand National four and a quarter miles. And, whereas runners in the Derby carry just nine stone on account of their immaturity, hurdlers and chasers can carry up to around 12 stone.
Many jumping horses are often bred to mature later, and might not race until the ages of four or five, whereas those that race on the Flat usually hail from more precocious ancestry and can race as two-year-olds early in the spring when the winter jumps season is drawing to a close.
From the very beginning, from the paddocks to the covering sheds and those early hesitant steps soon after birth, the road to Epsom is the ultimate destiny of any Flat-bred racehorse and, when matches are made between stallion and mare, the Derby is the dream of many a breeder.
To describe the action as the field flit between trees and tall buses on the busy downs, is also an examination of any race-caller’s competence and, with a worldwide television audience of millions, and a course attendance of 100,000 including Her Majesty, The Queen who arrives before the first race every year, it is a nerve-wracking experience.
Over the last thirty-plus years, I have either been a broadcaster or a spectator on Derby Day, an addiction fuelled by watching Shergar romp home by a remarkable ten lengths, the race’s widest winning margin, under Walter Swinburn in 1981. BBC Radio’s Peter Bromley summed up the performance perfectly that day: “You need a telescope to see the rest!”
Shergar’s story of racing glory followed by the tragic outcome of a botched kidnapping and failed ransom demand is one of the sport’s most notorious dramas as was the controversial defeat of the brilliant Dancing Brave by the Swinburn-ridden Shahrastani in 1986.
Ever since, arguments have raged as to whether the runner-up, who went on to beat Shahrastani in the King George at Ascot before winning the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, was given too much to do by his rider Greville Starkey or merely fell too far back after becoming unbalanced on the difficult course.
As Dancing Brave began his magnificent but ultimately futile charge down the centre of the course, ITV commentator Graham Goode described the unfolding controversy: “Dancing Brave coming with a run but oh so much to do!”
Swinburn won again in 1995 on Lammtarra and the Derby has always showcased the talents of the finest Flat jockeys like Willie Carson, Mick Kinane, Johnny Murtagh, Kieren Fallon, Ryan Moore and Frankie Dettori. But Lester Piggott, who won the race on a record-breaking nine occasions, is the undisputed King of Epsom.
During his long career, Piggott’s Derby mount was always regarded as hugely significant. No jockey has ridden the course better and few were more ruthless in obtaining the best horse to ride to the point that he would defy trainer’s orders by testing a potential mount on the home gallops.
Lester won on some superb horses – Crepello, Nijinsky, Sir Ivor, Roberto - but perhaps the most significant winner of recent decades came in 2001 when Galileo, ridden by Kinane, gave his Irish trainer Aidan O’Brien the first of six Derby victories before going on to become the greatest stallion in the world.
Galileo’s victory emphasises the vital importance of the race to the thoroughbred as his awesome talent has passed through subsequent generations to produce many champions as well as three Derby winners.
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