It's The Derby, And It's The Best


Epsom on Derby day: there's no place like it |


“A few minutes, only a few minutes, and the event that for twelve months has been the pivot of so much calculation, of such subtle combinations, of such deep conspiracies, round which the thought and passion of the sporting world have hung like eagles, will be recorded in the fleeting tablets of the past. But what minutes! Count them by sensation and not by calendars, and each moment is a day and the race a life.”

Words to make you put down your cup of coffee and summon up the blood, written by Benjamin Disraeli back in 1845 to describe the Derby. 

By that stage the great race had been in existence for 65 years. For some of us those words still ring true 177 years later. As much as I am a Derby devotee, I cannot deny that not everyone shares my passion for the supreme test, and that other races now dangle a far more alluring carrot when it comes to the term that is catnip to stud masters: 'stallion-making'.

But, just for a moment, let's not grubby ourselves with such commercial concerns. Because, well, it's Derby week, and even if it looks like Britain's 96-year-old monarch will have to miss Epsom on Saturday, we all know it is the place where Her Majesty would enjoy celebrating her Platinum Jubilee the most, just as she did her Coronation. And while thousands upon thousands of Londoners may no longer walk the 20-odd miles to reach the Downs, on this special weekend of jubilation the bunting will be strewn as high as our spirits while we temporarily forget the politics, the wars, the dreadful loss of young lives, and immerse ourselves in the thrill of being present for those precious few minutes of sport.

We have Lord Derby to thank, of course, not to mention his chum Sir Charles Bunbury. Had the flip of a coin gone the other way we would be celebrating Bunbury week. But, no, the 12th Earl of Derby won the toss, and the race that has come to enthrall the purists and define the breed has thereafter been run permanently in his name. His home in Surrey, The Oaks, not far from the Epsom Downs, was used to name the fillies' race, which began a year before the Derby in 1779. 

Imitation, some say, is the sincerest form of flattery. Cast your eye to the four corners of the racing world and you will find a Derby. But not the Derby.

The Derby belongs at Epsom. And the pedants among us, a group for which I am in the running to be honorary president, will not hear talk of the Epsom Derby or the English Derby, it's the Derby. 

May God bless the Irish Derby, the Kentucky Derby, the Deutsches Derby, and especially the dear Jersey Derby at Les Landes, but they are all copies. As someone in a faux gravelly voice once croaked in a film trailer, 'There can be only one'.

The Derby, the original and the best, will be run at Epsom on Saturday. For we lucky few, the race is a life, or at least a very important part of it. Enjoy every fleeting moment.

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