Insider’s guide to the Epsom Derby 2014
- Credit: Photos (C) Press Association
The countdown is on to the Investec Derby Festival, with racegoers set to descend on Epsom Downs in their thousands. Viv Micklefield goes behind the scenes to bring us an insider’s guide to this famous sporting event...
There’s no doubting the sense of excitement there’ll be as the horses and riders line-up for the 235th running of the world’s greatest flat race. Taking place on Saturday June 7, upwards of 120,000 people are expected to savour the spectacle of the thoroughbreds battling for supremacy over a one-mile stretch of Epsom Downs. To put it into context, that’s considerably more than attend either the FA Cup Final or the Wimbledon Championships’ showdown.
Making sure that everyone has a great time, both at Investec Derby Day and Investec Ladies’ Day, held the day prior, is no mean feat – particularly as only 11 days of racing take place here each year. And that’s not the only reason Epsom’s special. Because even if you’ve missed out on a ticket to rub shoulders with the celebrities in the grandstands or to sample the Michelin-starred delights of Albert and Michel Roux Jnr on the Prince’s Lawn, the public area on the Hill allows everyone to enjoy this sport of kings.
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What: Investec Derby Festival
Where: Epsom Downs Racecourse, Epsom KT18 5LQ
When: Investec Ladies’ Day Friday takes place this year on Friday June 6 (look forward to stepping out in style and taking centre stage on this popular raceday) and Investec Derby Day on Saturday June 7 (featuring what is regarded as the world’s greatest flat race).
How: For tickets to enclosures, call 0844 579 3004 or see epsomtickets.thejockeyclub.co.uk
As someone who actually grew up in the neighbourhood and used to collect discarded racing tickets following the famous meet, running the event is Simon Durrant’s dream job.
“The heart will be pumping,” admits Simon, who is in overall charge of Epsom’s two-day festival for the first time, “but I can’t wait for the gates to open.”
With fingers crossed for fine weather, he’ll be leaving nothing else to chance. The erection of temporary enclosures and the Hill’s funfair and attractions mark the final frenetic two weeks in six months of meticulous planning. That’s when staff numbers will also start swelling from 30 to several thousand as extra stewarding and security, catering and help from other Jockey Club racecourses is drafted in.
Amongst the multitude of tasks already faced by Simon’s permanent team are preparing the course itself, working with sponsors, talking to racehorse owners and trainers, and, naturally, making plans to welcome their biggest VIP.
“We are blessed that Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth still chooses to come to Derby Day as a private engagement,” says Simon.
As for Simon himself, having spent last year’s race hidden-away in a site control room, he is relishing the chance to soak up the roars of the crowd from a vantage point somewhere near the winner’s enclosure.
His day will start at around 4.30am with a big mug of coffee, a team briefing and a long checklist. Once up to speed with the latest racing reports, a watchful eye on everything from the jockeys flying in to cleanliness on the ground ensures that the last two-legged visitor has exactly the same experience as the first.
“Physically, we finish at between 10.30pm and 11pm during the festival. Mentally, you don’t stop,” he says. “I’m looking forward to Derby Day night when I’ll sleep properly for the first time since I don’t know when. Then I’ll wake up next morning thinking that was a good event. I enjoyed that!”
Top tip: “Our family enclosure on the Hill really captures the spirit of Epsom. There’s a big screen so you miss none of the racing action and fun activities are included in the ticket price.” (NB: The Hill itself is free, but the family enclosure is a paid-for area)
Clerk of the course
As the person responsible for everything that goes on between the rails, Andrew Cooper is the man who announces the racecourse’s all-important ‘going’.
He’ll survey the course with his trusted walking stick, in the knowledge that the six ground staff have done their best to create a pristine racing surface by mowing the turf to within four inches and getting the downland’s chalk soil sufficiently irrigated. Together with checks on site security and the positioning of sponsors’ branding, to ensure that nothing’s likely to unnerve a horse racing at 40mph, the safe and proper running of each race is his top priority.
Before each race Andrew completes a circuit between the Parade Ring and the Queen’s Stand from where he’ll watch the action.
“It’s a long day but hugely rewarding,” says Andrew. “With a race like the Derby, you’re the custodian of something that has a tremendous prestige and putting on a successful race is the ultimate satisfaction.”
Top tip: “Epsom’s going is usually in the Good to Good-to-Firm range, and our Racecards provide clues as to how each horse running is likely to handle the ground conditions on the day.”
General manager, Jockey Club Catering
Salad of squab pigeon, herb-roasted beef and courgette flower crisps are just some of the highlights on this year’s hospitality menu. And it’s Helen Hutchinson’s job to make sure that the dishes designed by head chef Andy Trowell and executive chef Frazer Wilson wow her 3,000 guests as much as the racing does.
A huge variety of food is created on site, and whether its terrines and pies or scones and jams, the team is always keen to use locally sourced produce whenever possible.
With responsibility for up to 2,000 catering staff during the festival, Helen expects to be working from 6am until late to make sure that everything runs smoothly. And that’s not only in the private boxes and restaurants either; then there are the marquees, as well as 23 bars and numerous food and coffee outlets to check up on too.
“Watching thousands of people enjoy the food, drink and the dining experience we’ve created for them is so exciting,” says Helen. “It makes all the hard work worthwhile.”
Top tip: “For a day to remember, treat yourself to a Michelin meal courtesy of Chez Roux !”
Local racehorse trainer
Whether any of the 25 horses at Simon Dow’s Clear Height Stables are due to run, or not, there are still dawn feeds and work-outs on the Epsom gallops required.
This means training alongside the melee of activity that accompanies the two-day festival and the additional racehorses that might use the facilities normally shared by the 12 local yards. According to Simon this can test the temperament of some of his charges, but everyone works hard to minimise the disruption and he’s hugely supportive of the event.
For each race, it’s a well-rehearsed routine of presenting runners at the racecourse stables between one and three hours before the ‘off’, and of updating jockeys and owners. Although, until the horse is actually in the stalls and they’re opened, anything can happen.
“I’m a bit superstitious; I always stand in the same place in the paddock,” says Simon. “During a race, mostly I watch it alone on a monitor. I suppose I’m a creature of habit, just like the horses.”
Top tip: “In the lead-up to the festival, visit the Downs to watch the racehorses training early in the morning.”
It’s a good day’s racing if Simon Knapp’s three-strong veterinary team has nothing to do. But, should one of the horses be involved in an incident out on the course, it’s all about providing a rapid response.
With screens, water and specialist equine ambulances standing by, they’ll have already completed a pre-race rehearsal that ensures any injured runner gets immediate treatment, perhaps involving x-rays and even being transferred into dedicated road transport.
Whether positioned at Tattenham Corner, at the pull-up area beyond the winning post, or driving immediately behind the race, the vets are in constant radio contact. They also work closely with the onsite medical team, and while the British Horseracing Association’s own veterinary surgeon handles dope testing, they may sometimes give a second opinion. Only once the horses have cooled down back in the yard and Simon’s satisfied that they’re all happy, is it job done.
“It’s a privilege to be so close to such supreme athletes,” Simon says. “To see the horses galloping down that hill makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.”
Top tip: “When a racehorse comes into the Parade Ring, if its coat is shiny and in good order, that’s one sign it’s likely to be in good health.”
5 Derby facts...
• The Derby is raced in a left-handed direction
• Since 1780, there have been 17 Irish-trained winners
• 57 chestnut horses have taken top honours
• Jockey Lester Piggott won his first Derby aged 18 years
• The largest-ever field of runners was 34 (1862); now 20 is the maximum allowed
Want more of the action?
Epsom Live is back this summer with racing followed by music from James Blunt (Thursday July 3), The Beach Boys (Thursday July 17) and Boyzone (Thursday July 31): epsomdowns.co.uk
Where else to watch horse racing in Surrey
Kempton Park, Sunbury TW16 5AQ: 01932 782292; kempton.co.uk
Lingfield Park, Lingfield RH7 6PQ: 01342 834800; lingfield.co.uk
Sandown Park, Esher KT10 9AJ: 01372 464348; sandown.co.uk