Why the Epsom Derby Festival is the highlight of the racing year

It’s a celebration of horse racing unlike any other

Sport

26 May 2017

When you think of the Queen and racing, it’s likely that Royal Ascot is the first event that pops into your head. But the Epsom Derby, which this year takes place on June 3, is almost as much a royal event as Ascot week. The Queen attends every year without fail, and even though it’s the only British Classic race that one of her horses has never won, that doesn’t seem to have put her off.

It’s not only the Queen that makes the two-day Derby Festival stand out, though. The Investec Epsom Derby, raced on the Saturday is perhaps the most prestigious flat race in the world, and also the richest race in Britain, with a £1.5 million prize to its name. No wonder, then, that horses come from far and wide to compete in it, and that owners, trainers and jockeys alike are all desperate to win it. It isn’t all about the Derby, either; the Investec Derby Festival hosts two ‘classic’ races in two days, with the one mile, four furlongs and 10 yard (the same distance as the Derby) Investec Oaks for three-year-old fillies on the Friday of the festival. But for both races it’s a tough track; the Epsom course is famously testing, with an uphill start, followed by a long downhill and a tough turn at Tattenham Corner and then an uphill climb to the finish.

Apart from the two classics, though, there’s so much else about the Epsom experience that is different from your average race meeting; from the carnival atmosphere of the free-to-enter Hill enclosure (or, as it is now to be known, Poundland Hill); the sad memorial to Emily Davison, the suffragette who stepped in front of the King’s horse Anmer in 1913 in the name of her cause; the fact that the word ‘Derby’ is now synonymous with racing… All in all it’s a one-of-a-kind, fantastic racing, with everyone from the Queen downwards in attendance.

Earlier this week, some of the horses who are entered for the Derby made a practice trip to Epsom for the annual ‘Breakfast with the Stars’ event. For many of them, it’s a first chance to have a look at the track. The Martyn Meade trained Eminent, for example, (a son of Frankel) had never left Newmarket in his entire life until his overnight trip down this week. But he took it all in his stride, and both Meade and his jockey, Jim Crowley, pronounced themselves pleased with his exercise on the track.

Frankie Dettori (who I spotted leaving the breakfast with not just one, but five Investec zebra toys), is scheduled to be riding in both the Oaks and the Derby: Khalid Abdullah’s Enable on the Friday, and Cracksman (another Frankel horse) for trainer John Gosden, in the Derby. But even though he is riding two of the most hotly tipped horses running (both Enable and Cracksman are currently second favourite in their respective races), nothing is taken for granted. ‘Is it the best racing day of the year?’ wondered Dettori. ‘It’s only the best racing day of the year if you win it… it is a challenging race, emotional and challenging. It’s a unique track, and it looks like we’re going to have a full field this year. So it is stressful, but when you win it’s fantastic.’ Up and down the country, trainers and jockeys will be feeling the same stress; Kentucky-based Ken McPeek, for example, who has flown over his filly Daddys Lil Darling to compete in the Oaks.

As part of my preparation for this year’s Magnolia Cup charity race at Goodwood, I ride out racehorses three mornings a week in Epsom. It’s fascinating watching the downs transform for June’s festival. For most of the year, the area is home mainly to dog walkers, early-morning runners, and around twelve racehorse trainers, for whom the Epsom Downs are their training ground. But from May onwards, things begin to change. Temporary buildings pop up, new fencing is everywhere, and the beep of lorries reversing is a constant background noise. With only a week to go, things are hotting up now (literally, as well); the enclosures are almost ready, the catering marquees are up, and the sprinklers are working hard to keep some juice in the ground, and stop it becoming too hard. Epsom is almost ready – and the horses are too.

Camilla Swift is riding in the Magnolia Cup at Glorious Goodwood on August 3, raising money for children’s mental health charity Place2Be. You can sponsor her here.


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