Towards the end of the eighteenth century, some wise folk wandered to the top of a Surrey hill and surveyed a helter skelter landscape of downland turf. There are quite a lot of flat bits across this gilded island of ours, but the wise and worthy decided that this hilltop would make a fine spot to race horses. And thank the Lord, and Lord Derby, that they did. The climb from the mile and a half start. The crest of the hill, and then the madcap dash down to Tattenham Corner. Before the crazy camber of the home straight. Mad, but utterly brilliant.
The Derby. The ultimate test of the Classic generation. A day when lives are changed, and careers defined. The head bobbing urgency of the photo finish means a bit at Brighton on a wet and windy May afternoon. The head bob at the end of a mile and a half of the greatest Classic means everything. We can all recall the horses that have finished second in The Derby. For their connections, it will always be a case of what might have been. For on this day, it really is winner takes all.
Many of us hanker after the midweek Derby. Wednesday and the great race were a perfect fit. But times change, decisions are made, calendars tweaked, and we have to run with what “they” have decided. Whoever “they” are. “They” make a lot of calls, some bold, some abject. But whatever day of the week we turn up atop that grassy down, we come in expectation. We come in the hope that we will see something extraordinary. The “we were there day” that will bore grandchildren further down the line, but that will provide the timeline of our memories. Maybe today will provide such a moment. A moment that will live with us down the years to come.
“Walter Swinburn has committed, and he’s going for home.” 1981. Shergar’s majestic, magical, imperious romp. His brilliance forever piqued by the tragic tale that hangs by his name. But on that day, he was utterly compelling to watch. Bossing the opposition as if they were selling platers. They were not. They were proper horses, but he waltzed away from them as if they were mired in cloying plough.
“But Slip Anchor has slipped the field for Steve Cauthen.” 1985. Steve barely moving a muscle whilst those behind dissolved into panicked shove. Strolling clear in the iconic Howard de Walden silks. Game over by the two pole.
“From here on in Dancing Brave, in the pink cap, and not in the picture, is into unknown territory.” 1986. Greville Starkey flailing and hoping and wishing and agonising as the yards slip away. Give him twenty more, and he wins The Derby on one of the finest horses it has been my privilege to see. But those twenty yards were not for sale on this balmy day, and Shahrastani and the choir boy stole the show for Sir Michael and the Aga Khan.