Some people will never learn. And I have to wonder why those people are given space to flaunt their ignorance in the national press. I suppose it must be because editors relish the opportunity to let their readers, encouraged as never before by such as Twitter and Facebook, to express their unqualified opinions, to make fools of themselves.
We were going to get a poor Derby. The Classic fillies were an uninspiring lot. Really?
How many more times does it have to be stated? Yes, by force of tradition, the Derby and the Oaks matter. They matter a lot. The winners are automatically destined to be remembered just for being the winners; their names will never be repeated. But the Derby and the Oaks don’t represent a culmination. They are, rather, a beginning. They set the standard that will be challenged in the months to come.
We know from history that sometimes better horses come along to dislodge the Derby and Oaks winners from the perches they attained at Epsom. But, and perhaps we should be surprised, plenty prove worthy of the accolades they earned over that weird switchback scurry over Surrey. It takes a special horse to cope with the demands of a course that was never properly designed.
Only a lunatic or an eccentric could have reckoned that a twisting, turning, uphill, downdale, stretch of ground with an adverse camber represented a suitable method of determining whether one horse could complete the distance more expeditiously than another. But it’s always done the job effectively, and what has happened there over the centuries has been an immense boon to the breed.
This year’s Oaks was won by a filly who had never won above Listed level before. So what? I can remember a maiden (Sun Princess) winning it by 12 lengths, and that wasn’t her only Classic victory. Taghrooda was an emphatic, dominant heroine of the 2014 renewal, she is still unbeaten, and she will go on to prove that she is a top-class performer, of that I have no doubt.
Can anyone seriously doubt that we saw a totally worthy, prodigiously gifted Derby winner? The paddock critics weren’t too complimentary about the contenders, but that just reinforces the old adage that handsome is as handsome does. The Derby isn’t, and never was, a beauty contest. But there is beauty in performance that has nothing to do with our concept of aesthetic appreciation of the individual.
Who are the best horses I have ever seen? Just recollecting a few off the top of my head, they would have to include Sea-Bird, Frankel, Nijinsky, Mill Reef, Shergar, Spectacular Bid. Did any of them look like physical perfection? They all had physical attributes that made them distinctive, but no, I’ve seen plenty of superior physical specimens who couldn’t match them in achievement. Crowned Prince may just have been the most perfectly-formed thoroughbred in my experience. He could run a bit, but he was wrong in his wind, and he did nothing for the breed.
Australia was a superior Derby winner. Be in no doubt. The 2014 field was up to the mark, and Australia was so much the best in the race. He was cantering over his rivals three furlongs out, already the obvious winner, and if he didn’t win as far as then seemed likely, that was just because he idled in front. He was not properly tested, even by a splendidly game runner-up in Kingston Hill, and Joseph O’Brien had no need to show us just how superior his mount was.
Turn off, tune out, drop away
You, dear reader, and I have been made readily aware that Australia is a superior racehorse. How many others are aware of that fact? We learnt, very soon after the Derby had been run, that the race had been watched by the least number of terrestrial TV viewers in history, considerably less than half those who watched when the BBC last had the rights to the event.
This fact has been represented in the media as a complete calamity, which might be construed as a fair reaction, but also expressed with surprise, something that struck me as totally disingenuous. What should anyone have expected? There is a sense in which Channel 4 should be the natural terrestrial home of the Derby, but that is only because racing has become – and has long since been – a minority sport. For those with limited TV coverage, Channel 4 is the last outpost; it’s for misfits.
I left The Sporting Life in 1985, so it must have been some time before then that I named the non-BBC racing suppliers as ‘the unwatchables’ and suggested that what racing needed was a dedicated channel for the real enthusiasts.
Channel 4 presenters, I know, were told to ‘never over-estimate the intelligence of the viewer’ and I resented being talked down to all the time. I had previously written a review of a survey conducted by TV channels over the relative popularity of sports which enjoyed exposure on the box. Racing ranked 23rd, far behind the likes of darts and snooker, which were parlour games and not sports at all. And that was at a time when racing had more TV exposure than anything bar cricket.
It has been obvious for 30 years or more that racing is no longer a mainstream sport, capable of interesting the masses. Should anyone really be surprised? I was brought up in an era and an environment where horses played a part in normal life. That’s all history. There are now two generations for whom the horse means nothing. The natural inclination to follow horseracing no longer exists.
Of course, people still go racing. They go to socialise with their mates and to drink, or they’re there to attend an associated music gig. But most have no interest in what goes on at the racecourse. And the authorities in racing are patently incapable of promoting the sport adequately. I can’t blame them entirely for that, because they fight a losing cause from the start. But in the case of the Derby they scored a spectacular own goal by shifting a Wednesday stand-alone historic national event to a crowded sporting Saturday where its special status has been lost.
I found a passion for racing before I became a teenager. Few will find that at a similar age now, aside from those with family connections. How those charged with the task of promoting racing to the younger generation can achieve anything, I really don’t know.
A couple of thoughts arise from Epsom 2014. I gather that only under-fives got in free to the Queen’s Stand on Derby Day. If you were five years old, your parents had to stump up 30 quid for you. How does that encourage the younger generation? That policy needs to be ditched immediately, and if anyone at Epsom had a conscience full refunds would be made to those treated so mean-spiritedly.
I attended Epsom’s summer meeting for a 49th time this year. It would have been my 50th but for the fact that I snapped my Achilles tendon on the tennis court a week before the 2008 meeting and was immobile, on crutches. You will gather that I don’t miss it other than in exceptional circumstances.
I turned up for this year’s fixture, not in the best of health, but complete with what I believed were the appropriate press credentials, only to be told on my arrival in the media centre that I was not entitled to be there. I was evidently trespassing. The young woman who turned me out had no idea who I was, and I don’t blame her for that; it wasn’t her job to know. And I wasn’t about to make a fuss. I expect I’d filled in my application form incorrectly.
But, of course, I did feel a bit miffed, banned from the environment I’d inhabited for half a century. No big deal really, as the media centre at Epsom does not provide a view of the racing, and I was there to watch the sports, but an old-timer used to taking a nap during the afternoons needs a spot to at least take the weight off his legs between races. Any chance of that in 2015, I wonder?