Save racing from hooligans

By Lewis Syddall on |


epsom racecourse

In the media centre on Derby day were a series of murals with various statements on racing from the likes of Sir Michael Stoute, Kieran Fallon and more historical figures. Charles Dickens once wrote that “On Derby day, a population rolls and scrambles through the place that may be counted in the millions.”

Dickens probably got a bit carried away, as did the Radio Times in the mid 1980s when they advertised BBC1’s coverage (headed by Judith Chalmers, no less) as coming from Epsom Downs where “500,000 racegoers” would be in attendance.

The truth is the numbers have never been counted but were – even back then when the Derby was in its pomp – almost certainly someway south of those lofty figures.

My biggest issues this year, however, with the “racegoers” themselves. What happened at Epsom on late Saturday afternoon – a mass brawl with riot police and disgusting scenes – shamed racing. It shamed Epsom, it shamed the Derby and it shamed us all.

These were not racegoers; these were thugs. These thugs had no more interest in the merits of the Classic generation taking on the ultimate test of the thoroughbred than they were out for a load of strong lager and a chance to start a fight.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised; perhaps we can point the finger at ‘societal change’ and modern-day youth. That would be easy, and I believe it would be cowardly. We have to ask ourselves — as lovers of racing — why our sport is too often the scene of the kind of unsavoury, anti-social behaviour which we might fearfully expect in France this Summer, as wannabe hooligans descend on Euro 2016, determined to ruin it.

It’s not good enough to blame the warm weather nor the relatively late start time. We won’t change it overnight but we all have a duty to encourage those people who come to the races to only come if they have an element of interest in racing: the spectacle, the horses, the fresh air, the celebrities, the betting, whatever it is.

If we allow folk to infiltrate our sport who tick none of these boxes we are on a slippery slope to big race misery, and all the colour in the world that makes Derby Day so unique cannot hide the ugly scar in our midst.

Weld and Smullen: a dream pair

A far happier spectacle at Epsom on Saturday evening was the privileged one I had of Dermot Weld and his jockey Pat Smullen at the cinema after having won the race with HH the Aga Khan’s Harzand.

To my knowledge, Epsom is unique in having a grandly titled cinema and it is most notably associated in my mind as being the venue for the post-Classic press conference. It has no windows, is always far too hot and much too small.

We all crammed in as Messrs Weld and Smullen – both still dripping in perspiration for different, but related reasons – began to calmly talk through their emotions. Two classier guys you would be hard pressed to find.

Weld has a glint in his eye; he has a sense of mischief but his globe-trotting achievements – from Melbourne Cups to Derbys and all points between – are truly unique. He spoke at length about the near calamitous incidents leading up to Harzand’s Derby win, which saw the colt with his foot in a bucket of iced water after ripping off a shoe (with graphic consequences just a few hours before the race). He spoke of the tenderness of the farrier, the care of the equine staff and the affection in his voice was awe-inspiring.

Smullen too was all class: this was his biggest moment and there can be few jockeys who are so universally liked as Smullen. He is an honest grafter and a first-class pilot: a potent combination. Weld so evidently trusts him down to his marrow and here is a relationship seldom is their bond played out in public. It is one of mutual respect, softly-spoken admiration and even more gently executed steel.

Harzand’s Derby win may not be remembered as a vintage but these two guys deserved every bit of their long-awaited success and, for me, it is these two – just as much as the horse – to whom Derby Day belonged.

Welcome back, Kieran

A blast from our past hit us in the Derby Day finale as Kieran Fallon booted home the Dandy Nicholls-trained Blaine in the six-furlong finale.

I love Fallon and always have; his pursed lips and ever-so-slightly menacing stare have been much missed. He’s not everybody’s cup of tea, of that there is no doubt, but his presence at Epsom made most of us smile.

He looked terrific and I say that with a degree of envy given all that Fallon has been through – some self-inflicted but much of it not – in recent years. He is a character; he is good copy, but perhaps best of all he reminded us as we left Epsom that he is still one heck of a horseman and I, for one, am delighted if we see a lot more of him this Summer.

Fashion to the fore

Next week, of course, we head to Royal Ascot. Derby Day always makes me nervous as I dust off my tailcoat and trousers for the first time in almost 50 weeks.

This year was a worry and I confess it wasn’t the most comfortable day, sartorially. I am now in a complete bind: should I cowardly go back to Favourbrook on Jermyn Street for some alterations to my formal clobber or get on a crash diet to return to my 2015 fighting weight in the nick of time?

These problems might not be front of mind for those studying the form for the biggest week of the Flat season calendar, but those who dismiss the fashions and style at Ascot are needlessly pig-headed.

Sure, it’s great racing, but it’s great fun too. And you might as well check out now for a while if you don’t want me to cast my amateur eye over some of the behind-the-scenes fashions next week that will keep us gossiping classes in clover. I’m not looking beyond day one as I promise to pair a duck egg blue waistcoat with a soft yellow tie.

Mark my words, dear readers, I confidently predict a shift away from the bold colours of recent years as Ascot returns to a more demure, soft palette – and I am happy to lead the way. (And for those of you who have been following my tips, you all know what to do now.)

Top image: Epsom racecourse, by Diamond Geezer via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


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