When is a Derby not a Derby any more? It is a question that racing’s planners, executives and fans seem sure to be asking themselves over the next few weeks as the sport plots what seems sure to be a very slow return to some kind of normality when the lockdown starts to ease. What, if anything, can be done to save British Flat racing’s most famous Classic?
There has been a Derby winner every year since Diomed’s success in the first running of the race in 1780. The first four Derbys were staged over a mile but it switched to 12 furlongs from 1784 and all but 10 of the 240 horses to win the Derby since 1780 did so at Epsom in either late May or early June.
The 10 Derbys staged at Newmarket during the two world wars – from 1915 to 1918 and then from 1940 to 1945 – were also run on or near the usual date in early June.
The decision has already been taken to postpone the Derby from its traditional slot on the first Saturday in June and there is a general feeling at Jockey Club Racecourses that it would be impossible to stage a Derby at Epsom behind closed doors.
This means that unless the restrictions on mass gatherings are relaxed much more swiftly than anyone expects, the 241st Derby will, for the first time in its long history, be staged at neither its traditional venue or at its traditional spot in the season.
So will it be a Derby at all? Marcus Tregoning, who saddled Sir Percy to win the Classic in 2006, thinks not. Tregoning said on Tuesday that to his mind the timing and location are essential aspects of our most famous Classic.
“The Derby is run at a certain time of year, on particular course and that is part of the test,” Tregoning said. “If you move it until later in the year or run it at a different course, it is obviously not the same race. The Derby is unique. You could run a Group One over the distance somewhere else and call it something else but it would not be the Derby.”
In a purely racing sense Tregoning may well be right. You can conceivably lose either the time or the place but not both and in the case of the Derby the place is of paramount importance.
Federico Tesio’s famous quote about the existence of the thoroughbred breed being dependent on the “piece of wood” that marks the finishing line at Epsom sums up the extraordinary test the famous course poses for an inexperienced three-year-old. Even now, if Derby winners like Dante (1945) and Owen Tudor (1941) ever get a mention, it tends to be followed by a reminder it was a “wartime substitute race at Newmarket” as if they are not absolutely 100% worthy of the status.
But the Derby – and having a Derby winner – is hugely important to the breeding industry, too. It is not always won by the best horse in the race and the winner does not always turn out to be an outstanding stallion. At the same time, though, it is essential to have a race that brings the most promising three-year-old colts together in the hope one will emerge as the clear leaders of his generation.
The Derby winner is a vital waypoint in the centuries-old process of trying to breed great racehorses, both when he competes against older horses later in the season and then, ideally, as a four-year-old the following season. Wartime Derby winners, the products of a much-reduced breeding industry, have varied in quality but included Gainsborough, a Triple Crown winner in 1918 and then the sire of Hyperion, the 1933 Derby winner and six-times champion sire, and Solario, the 1925 Leger winner, who was also subsequently a leading sire.
Even if the Derby is rescheduled behind closed doors at Newmarket later in the year it seems unlikely there will be many trials in the run-up. Getting a representative field could depend on close co-operation between the organisers, handicappers and the biggest Flat racing operations. But if there is any way to do it, it should be done, and the 241-year sequence of Derby winners should be maintained. None of us, after all, will be worrying too much about the technicalities in another 200 years’ time.