Epsom 1-June-2024 Betfred Derby (Group 1) Connections celebrate at the presentation ceremony after City Of Troy and Ryan Moore won for owners Coolmore and giving trainer Aidan O'Brien his 10th Epsom Derby. Photo Healy Racing / Racingfotos.com

Roving Reports: Epsom’s Downs

Even before we set off for two days on Epsom’s rolling downs this year, there’s a problem, writes David Massey. There are always problems when I’m on the firm, it appears, mainly of the IT variety (more of that later) but on this occasion, two weeks before the big event, we have a slightly bigger one.

There are five of us due to travel to Epsom, two of whom, Tim and Paula, are a couple and have been for as long as I’ve known them. And then, a fortnight before the Derby, a date comes through for Paula’s keyhole surgery on her knee. It’s Oaks Day. And if she doesn’t take this date, she’ll be waiting until September, she’s told. It’s not even an argument, she has to have the surgery and so Paula, who spends more time in a certain beauty salon in Mansfield than she does at home, sadly will not be with us this year.

This means we have to recruit at short notice and BMW - Big Martin - steps into the breach. Martin has more Derby tales to tell than anyone I know, and is one of the Top 10 Eaters on a racecourse alive today. The man has hollow legs.

Martin’s favourite Derby tale is one I’ve recounted before, I think, but it’s always worth a retell. “We used to bet up on the Hill back in the day”, he says, “and there’s this one year we’re a bit late, the traffic was bad. In the front of the car we used to have a hooky Lyons Caterers pass - they supplied for the Queen, and the gatemen never stopped you if you had one of those. So anyway, we’ve pulled up, all suited and booted, and the guy on the gate gives us the stop signal.”

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“You’re a bit late lads”, he says.

“Yes, bad traffic.”

“I don’t mean that. That Lyons pass is about three years out of date”, he says, pointing at the offending item.

“Look pal, we can stand here arguing if you like about the validity of that pass but we’ve got the Queen’s strawberries covered in the back of the car and they’re going off! She won’t be happy…”

“You’d best get going then lads”, says the gateman, hurrying them through. Unbelievable!

Anyway, I’ve gone a little off-topic here. Bottom line now is that we’re a room short, as Martin can’t really be sharing with Tim. And at this stage, a room near Epsom isn’t going to come cheap.

To the rescue come my friends Claire and Wayne, who live in Addlestone. They’ve always said if I need a spare room I only have to ask, and now seems a good time. Only thing is, they’re off to Berlin for the weekend as it’s Claire’s birthday treat! So I’ve got a four-bedroomed house to myself for the two days! What a result!

We travel, as ever, on the Thursday evening - the last thing you need is M25 traffic on a Friday, Thursday is bad enough - and so, early on the Friday morning at just before 8am, I’m waiting to be picked up for Epsom Racecourse. As Epsom is so expansive, the pick for both days is ridiculously early, 9.30am Friday and 9am Saturday, as the ring managers have a lot of area to cover, and the course want bookmakers in position before the double-deckers start arriving around 11am.

There are two surprises - one, there are less bookmakers in our enclosure than last year (five less, to be exact) and two, IT’S LIKE THE MIDDLE OF BLOODY WINTER HERE!

The last thing that the good lady said to me as I sat in the car Thursday, ready to go, was “are you taking a jumper?” At that point I’d ummed and ahhed about whether to take one or not, with a somewhat mixed forecast, but it turns out the best decision I made all weekend was to get out of the car, go back in the house, upstairs, and fetch my warm blue cotton jumper that is normally reserved for Yarmouth in September. I kid you not when I use the word “freezing” here - it really is cold, grey skies all around, no sign of any sun, and a temperature of 10 degrees. It is not going to get any warmer all day long. Luckily I can disappear to the press tent for a coffee and a bacon sandwich, unlike some of the poor bookmakers who are going to be sat around in the murk outside for the next few hours.

When I reappear around midday, I find Tim and the rest of the team have turned up, and Tim has delved into my bag of wet-weather gear and found my winter coat. Which he’s decided to purloin for himself. Tim, who spends one-sixth of the year in Barbados and does not cope well with English weather the other five-sixths, looks utterly disgusted with proceedings already and we’ve not even had the first race yet.

The whole afternoon is best described thus: the cold weather stops the picknickers, the buses are few and far between, and the ones that turn up are not betting buses. Overall, not great. The only saving grace is the fact that the bookmakers are down in numbers, which matches the custom. There’s really not as many here as you’d like, and crowd numbers are on the small side. Very noticeably so.

As such, results are almost irrelevant given the level of business, but we don’t have a winning favourite all afternoon. Ideally, you’d like these results tomorrow when business will be better. The biggest bet I take all afternoon is £200, from a lad that wanted to back something he called “hammish” in the Coronation Cup. I look for something hammish, anything ham-like on the board, in fact, but it turns out he means Hamish. I assume he’s not Scottish at this point. Regardless, when that one finishes second he leaves his money with us.

As the afternoon goes on and it gets colder, talk inevitably turns towards tonight’s food order. Nando's is the destination of choice, as it caters for all of us (i.e. the fat sods like me and Martin can have chips with our chicken, whilst the healthier brigade - Tim - can have his couscous. Or whatever.)

Saturday morning, 7.45am pick-up. I lock up and push the keys back through the door. It’s supposedly warmer than yesterday, but if it is, it’s not by a lot. The jumper is still on.

The press room is even more packed than yesterday. I must be the only person in there trying to look at Worcester’s afternoon card, but there we go.

Today I find myself right down the end of the line of bookmakers in the Lonsdale Enclosure, often a very good pitch on a day like today. We’re still awaiting three buses turning up which we’re told are all late. Those three buses will be right in front of me when they turn up; sadly for me, they never do. There’s some miscommunication somewhere and my good pitch suddenly looks less good. That’s another massive disadvantage of having to pick at 9am when there’s no crowd or buses - you’re relying on the info you’re given at that point, and if it’s wrong, tough luck.

The crowd are coming in pretty quickly now and at least they are filling the gaps that the buses leave, which is some consolation. The sun is trying to come out. Things are looking up.

A group of young ladies come along and sit near the joint, set up with picnic and prosecco. After a while one of the girls comes over and - this next conversation is 100% how it happened - says to me…

“City Of Troy runs today, doesn’t it? In the Derby?”

I inform her it does, and she wants to back it.

“I was told, back in March, don’t back it first time as it won’t win but back it second time because then he will win.” I ask if the person that told her this information had a quiet Irish accent and said “listen” a lot. Fully expecting her to have a fiver on it, she pulls a card out and has £100 on at 3-1. Her mates all follow suit with twenties and fifties.

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Business is slow to get going for the first, with so many people coming to the party quite late, but I still manage to take a grand on the race, most of it on Portsmouth, and when that’s beaten, it’s a good start.

It’s fair to say this is not a racing crowd - you’d not expect it to be, not in this enclosure - but equally I did expect them to be in better spirits than they are, and they really are, in the main, a miserable lot. One lad insists on giving me dog’s abuse after his 50 quid bet on Running Lion gets stuffed - somehow that’s my fault, it seems - and one girl insists I’m trying to cheat her after I charge her 20 quid for her £10 each-way bet. Yes, you read that right.

“I know that a £10 each-way bet is a tenner, not twenty. You’re lying”, she shouts, with some real venom. There’s a queue behind her that I really need to serve. I offer to get the ring inspector involved but all she wants to do is shout at me. Eventually the bloke behind her in the queue intervenes on my behalf and tells her she’s wrong, but I feel really down after the episode. In fact, it rather ruins the afternoon if I’m honest and, after that, I’m not my usual effervescent self. I just want the day to end and to go home.

However, I’ll tell you of one other episode on the day that did actually offer some optimism for the future. Sadly, we lost Tears Of A Clown after the 3yo Dash, the green screens going up in front of the stands. One lady asked me what had happened - had the horse died? How had it died? I explained to her in non-emotive language exactly what had happened, and why I thought it had happened. She was very sad about the episode, as you’d expect, but she thanked me for explaining it all to her, and in clear terms.

When the worst happens on a racecourse and we sadly lose horses, and that’s just a fact of our sport, we need to deal with it in an adult fashion and not try and hide anything. Twice this season I’ve heard courses use the phrase “ x is being assessed in the horse ambulance” in an effort to try and lessen the blow for racegoers when clearly that’s not been the case. That has to stop, if we want the transparency the new Horse Pwr initiative is supposed to bring. Be honest with people. They’ll understand.

Anyway, the girls knew. City Of Troy kicks them aside in the Derby, a dreadful result for the books, as it turns out. As the girls pick up, I ask them whether their mystery source has informed them as to whether he’ll win again third time? “Oh yes, he’ll win again.” Who needs form books when you’ve info like this, eh?

Let’s hope the crowd at Ascot is cheerier. See you all next week. Bring a brolly, that’s my tip.

- DM

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1 reply
  1. davewood53
    davewood53 says:

    That was a great read. Thanks. Sorry about your miseries. My mate was there on the Friday with his ‘posh friends’ and had a similarly inauspicious experience. Usually he’s Whatapping me all afternoon from these jaunts (rubbing in his good fortune to have friends other than me) but all I got this time was “At the Oaks, its bloody freezing here!” I smiled from my warm armchair.

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