‘The Investec Derby is such a great occasion, it isn’t like anything else’

TV presenter Clare Balding, ITV racing presenter Francesca Cumani, official Epsom historian Michael Church and Daily Telegraph racing correspondent Marcus Armytage recall their first Derby memories.

‘It’s only as you get older that you realise how hard it actually is to find a horse good enough to compete in the Derby let alone to win it.’

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Clare Balding: My name is Clare Balding, I am the ringmaster, I suppose, of this round-table discussion. Alongside me is Marcus Armytage, racing correspondent of the Daily Telegraph. Marcus, your first memory of the Derby and why you think it’s special.

 

Marcus Armytage: Well, the very first horse, my father trained horses, but the first name that comes in to my mind when I started to get interested in racing was as a five-year-old was Nijinsky. And I remember him before any of the horses we had in the yard because we used to get around the telly to watch Nijinsky. It was a huge shock when he got beaten.

 

CB: He didn’t get beaten in The Derby though…

 

MA: No, not in the Derby, but when he subsequently got beaten towards the end of the season, after he won the Triple Crown. He was the big horse of my childhood really.

 

CB: Also with us, the Derby’s official historian, Michael Church. Michael, the first, I mean you’ve delved into so many Derbies from before you were born, that maybe some of them you feel that you were actually there. But what was the first Derby that you remember seeing?

 

Michael Church: Well, seeing, I had my first bet when I was nine, and it was after the war, we came back from being evacuated in Wales. We came back, there was a family reunion, with 10 of my dad’s brothers there, and they were all talking about the Derby, they weren’t talking about the war in any way. So I wanted to know about this, but anyway I had a shilling each way on Midas in 1949, no, 1945. He was second.

 

The first Derby I went to was 1948, which was My Love, and I got a book from Woolworths, a little notebook, and I painted in all the jockey’s colours that I found out so that when I was there I could see them in the parade because the racecards had no pictures.

 

CB: It just strikes me that as you're speaking, shillings don’t exist any more, Woolworths doesn’t exist any more, racecards certainly have pictures in the with colours and the Investec Derby is still going strong! It has stood the test of time. Also with us today Francesca Cumani, who will be presenting as part of the ITV team, for both the Oaks and the Derby. It’s a great two-day festival but the Derby itself, why is it so special to you?

 

Francesca Cumani: I think my earliest memory of the Derby was when I was five years old, and my Dad won it with Kahyasi. It’s funny, I think I distinctly remember being in the nursery with my brother and watching it on TV, although he said recently in an interview that we were in the kitchen, so maybe it wasn’t a very clear memory, but it was one of those things that it really does stand out, just ever since I remember anything about racing really. It’s just been the Derby that stands out. Yes, we’ve got the Guineas and Royal Ascot, and every other highlight on the calendar, but the Derby is the race.

 

CB: And your dad actually won it twice.

 

FC: He did, actually, yes. Ten years on from Kahyasi he won it in ’98 with High Rise. I remember a little bit more about that one. I was actually in the middle of a tennis match at school, and thankfully my games teacher was a big fan of racing so she let me out of the match midway, and I don’t think I even went back to the match!

 

CB: I remember Kahyasi’s Derby particularly because I was there with my parents at the start. Dad didn’t have a runner that day and we went down and just really enjoyed it at the start, and it was extraordinary because we had a little telly that we could plug into the car, quite futuristic I think actually. So we could see the end of the race.

 

And just a few years ago when Frankie won on Golden Horn I went to the start again, I took my nephews there. I said: “This is the place you’ve got to watch from.” But there’s no screen there and we didn’t have a little telly, so I could just see this flash of colours away in the distance and thought: “Frankie’s won the Derby again.”

 

FC: Actually if you watch all the footage, old footage back, you see all the crowds lining up to watch at the start or where they go up the hill and then starting to run across the Downs to try to see them at the finish again.

 

MC: Yes, always. There’s a wonderful film called “Esther Walters” which shows the 1895 Derby and they’re all running across, that’s part of the film, all running across to get the winning post before the horses.

 

CB: And it is such a great occasion, it isn’t like anything else. There’s the fairground in the middle, the double-decker buses, open-top buses. That exodus that always used to exist, particularly when the race was on a Wednesday, that exodus from London to get to Epsom Downs. It’s not my first memory, but my first association of the Derby, the year I was born, which was 1971, my dad won the Derby with Mill Reef, it’s in or top ten, and my father, that’s the absolute seminal moment of his life. 

 

Not the birth of his first child, he forgets that that ever happened, but that Mill Reef won the Derby in 1971. And it set him up. He was very early in his training career, he knew he would never train a horse that good again, because he went on to great successes, won the King George, won the Arc as well – the first British-trained winner of the Arc for over 20 years.

 

And then in 1981 dad has a runner called Glint of Gold, he was second to Shergar. He was miles back, Shergar won by a record winning distance, but I remember being allowed at school to listen to it on the radio. And Peter Bromley did a brilliant commentary on it on the radio. It’s one of the great commentaries, and then we were waiting for the mention of the placed horses, and there was Glint of Gold.

 

MC: I love his bit: “You need a telescope to see the rest!”

 

CB: Exactly, and he says it in that great big deep throaty voice. And John Mathius, who rode Glint of Gold, actually thought he’d won the Derby because Shergar was so far clear he couldn’t see! And that’s what he said in the interview afterwards. They were really shocked so sent him to see the doctor and get his eyes tested!

 

FC: But I think it’s only really with hindsight, you would know having grown up in that same environment with Mill Reef, and my dad with the two winners, that only as you get older that you realise how hard it actually is to find a horse good enough to compete in the Derby let alone to win it. You realise what an achievement it is.

 

CB: And I always do feel sorry for those jockeys and trainers who are beaten a short head, or a head, and they know they might not get that chance again. You look at a great trainer like Barry Hills. How many times did he have a horse that was beaten in photo finishes? And you think he never managed to win the Derby. It’s a huge deal, it really is a great day out.

 

I first presented it for the radio in 1994 I remember running towards Willie Carson who won it on Erhab to get the interview with him. And he was just screaming because Erhab came from a long way back and it was just a brilliant ride, it was very daring, and he was just screaming at the microphone: “I’ve won the Derby! I’ve won the Derby!” And it was just great, and I’ve probably presented nearly every year since for either radio or television. So I’ve had a huge association.

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