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June 9, 2014updated 11 Jan 2016 3:27pm

How the Derby raced ahead of Ascot

By Spear's

My wife and I were invited to the The Derby on Saturday as guests of Johnno Spence and Investec. So does the race live up to its billing as the World’s Greatest Flat Race?

The last time I had been was in 2007 as the Publisher of The Derby Magazine when the race was won by favourite Authorized, ridden by Frankie Dettori, on whom I had a decent bet after a superb four-course ‘Derby Lunch’ hosted by the Jockey Club at which tout English racing society were present. When I noticed that most of the racing establishment were piling up fifty-pound notes on Dettori at the Tote cashier at the lunch, I dutifully followed suit. 

I wish I had bet again on the favourite – Australia – this year. Alas, this year lunch was a sandwich from an Epsom van and I went for a horse called Geoffrey Chaucer who ended up not getting anywhere near Australia, despite apparently having beaten him in a training gallop earlier this year. 

Read more on horseracing from Spear’s

I had forgotten how different The Derby is from Royal Ascot. The atmosphere is more relaxed than Ascot where dress-code militia stand by the entrance to the Royal Enclosure to ensure that ladies’ hem lines reach the knee and that men do not even think about walking around the Enclosure without their top hat – unless you are looking to be ejected from the course. While a morning suit is required for the Queen’s Stand, nobody seemed too bothered if you wanted to walk over to the bookies area without your hat on. 

This raffish and more relaxed festival atmosphere led some to ask – at least back in 2007 – whether the Derby still retains its position as one of the chicest and smartest events in the London social season. Certainly when I published the Derby Magazine, it had gone through a scruffy patch. There was no official time-keeper and the course was struggling to find corporate headline sponsors as well as fill the corporate boxes where the decor was dated and the course felt tired.

‘That’s all changed’ I was told by Epsom director Rupert Trevelyan the day before the race. ‘You’ll see for yourself. The corporate boxes are full again on Derby day, although its not quite as easy for people to take the Friday off for the Oaks.’  

Indeed. What a transformation has taken place since 2007 with such new additions as ‘Chez Roux on the Prince’s Lawn’, a racing restaurant which has brought the French-English two Michelin starred father and son chef team, Michel Roux Jnr and his father

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Albert, to the Derby. With restaurant prices starting at £549 (plus VAT) per person, thanks to the spectacular views of the famous course, lunching chez Roux is certainly not cheap. You could eat three lunches at Le Gavroche for the same price. But it shows that the HNW money is back at Epsom; and that an invitation to the Derby for lunch is not to be turned down. Today, the Derby is every bit as socially and gastronomically as desirable as Royal Ascot. 

Many people arrive at Epsom without even knowing they need to wear a morning suit or top hat to gain access to the Queen’s Stand. When we walked into the stand,  I was amused to see a man in his sixties – smartly dressed up like a butler at Claridge’s in full morning dress – who had set up an enterprising stand that resembled a mobile charity shop selling morning coats and top hats for those who found themselves embarrassingly under-dressed for the Derby. He was making quite a handsome mark-up I have to say – £200 for the sort of battered grey ex-Moss Bros hire hat that you might pay £40 for in an Oxfam shop. 

The roots of the Derby belong to Derby Fair – which in the 19th century and early 20th century was so popular that Members of Parliament were even given the day off to attend. What was obvious from attending on Saturday is that the corporate hospitality boom of the 80s seems to be back. The Derby is sponsored by Investec, one of the UK’s leading wealth management firms.

Their choice of sponsoring the Derby is proving to be a shrewd one. Thanks to the work of Rupert Trevelyan and Johnno Spence and the JSC Sport team behind the scenes, the Derby has now positioned itself as being a perfect mixture of classic English society racing with a sporting pedigree going back 235 years combined with an ever more growing international appeal. That the race was won this year by a horse called Australia (pictured below) – trained in Ireland – says it all. 


‘Both the winners of The Oaks and The Derby are admired around the world’ says Trevelyan. But while The Derby is best known as perhaps the world’s greatest flat race, the revitalised Derby Festival – which was switched to a Saturday some years ago as it was getting increasingly difficult to fill the corporate boxes on a Wednesday in early June – is really down to the fact that it has not lost sight of its purist racing roots or popular fair history and has avoided the temptation to become too much of a corporate jolly. 

At The Derby, the racing is what really matters. In a spiritual nod to the great champion racing Derby trainer Sir Henry Cecil – who died last year – the Investec Oaks was this year run in his memory. 

Whilst I am looking forward to Royal Ascot next week, I never enjoy getting there. The Derby is more like a travelling circus carnival with people parking up on the verges all around the Epsom Downs and many locals simply walking from Epsom or the surrounding hamlets or villages. Whereas Royal Ascot can be a bit stuffy, with oversized county gentry types sitting under flimsy B&Q tents in loud red braces, popping open magnums of champagne in Car Park 1 while they chew on cold lobster and scoff M&S mini quiches. 

The Derby is more like a seaside fun fair where you can tip the ‘Members’ car parking attendant £5 and be inside the race course within three minutes. You also get to see the race horses closer up than at Ascot. When the Earl of Derby was introduced to Her Majesty in the parade ring, I noted how elegantly he removed his top hat (with his silk top hat lining facing outwards) and simultaneously bowed like a true courtier.

Whoever said that Derby standards have slipped certainly hasn’t been there recently. I will definitely be returning next year – and backing the favourite. 

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