As the sun breaks over the Derby course this Saturday, for the 241st running of the most famous race in the world, it will be a very different scene to most years.
There will be no packed infield full of double decker buses, no ferris wheel on the Hill, no HM the Queen in the grandstand. But it will, says Epsom Racecourse’s General Manager Simon Durrant, still be the Derby – even behind closed doors.
“Saturday will still be a fantastic day. I explained to the team that this isn’t what we wanted to see when we were planning the event in January and February, but we will still all be part of something incredibly special,” he tells City A.M..
Even as we become used to events behind closed doors in this strange year, hosting the Derby on Epsom Downs has proven a bigger logistical challenge than just about any other. The Downs is governed by its own Act of Parliament, and its use for ‘light air and exercise’ is enshrined in law. To close the Downs in order to host the Derby required sign-off from a group known as the Conservators, comprising Councillors, residents and a host of others.
“I think the most important thing to come out of that process was the sense of pride that Epsom and Ewell has, whether that be the Conservators or the council or the local residents.
“They’ve been really pleased to see that we’ve been able to retain it – the Derby hasn’t gone to Newmarket as it did in the World Wars, so the fact we’re able to run it… it puts Epsom on the map.”
With good reason. It’s known as the greatest flat race in the world, and the 1m 4f course is fiendishly difficult.
A steep uphill climb leads to the top of the hill, before a fast turning descent down into Tattenham Corner. A further downward run along the home straight is complicated by a sudden, steep incline half a furlong out.
It’s the ultimate test of a three year-old thoroughbred and those that have won the famous race – Nijinsky, Shergar, Authorized among them – are a who’s who of flat racing superstars.
This year will be doubly unique, with the Oaks – in the modern day usually held on the Friday before the Derby on the first Saturday of June – running just a couple of hours before the big race. Some Derby day favourites – not least the 5 furlong dash, the fastest in the world – have had to fall by the wayside thanks to the sheer scale of the operational challenge.
Simon tells us anybody allowed on to the course will be given thorough medical checks and be made to take every possible precaution. As well as owners, trainers, stablehands and a few select media, 350 racing staff will ensure the day goes off without a hitch. “We’re confident that the people we are welcoming into our racecourse all day, are all the ones that should be there,” he says.
The Jockey Club, which owns Epsom Racecourse as well as others including Cheltenham and Aintree, would certainly rather have the stands packed this weekend from a business perspective. But, says Simon, that wasn’t the point this year.
“The most important thing was that the race would be run, for the industry. We’ve got to remember that the Derby can only be entered by a horse once. So it was hugely important that we were able to run the Derby – it’s not just about Epsom Downs racecourse or the Jockey Club.”
The Investec Oaks & Derby will be shown live on ITV Racing.