Nothing has been lost since William Powell Frith painted his Derby Day panorama in 1858: today, instead of the carriages and corseted courtesans, the acrobats and pickpockets, he could cram his canvas with scarlet-lipped ladies in shades posing for selfies; with men in impeccable morning dress coping no better with greasy hamburgers than Ed Miliband did with his bacon sandwich; and with strolling musicians, from a moustached one-man band to the smartly co-ordinated Dukebox Singers, a sextet of ladies bravely striking up their acapella harmonies against the racing hubbub. But this year it really was all about the racing.
Only two men in horse-racing history have been instantly recognisable to the public inside and outside their sport, no second name required: one is Lester Piggott and the other Frankie Dettori. Fittingly, it was Lester, the winner of nine Derbies, who gave a surprisingly quiet Frankie, who had triumphed at Epsom only once before, the reassurance he needed before this year’s race: ‘I wish I was on your horse,’ the maestro told him. And if a kiss-spraying, shoutingly ebullient Dettori made up for his quietness before the contest by conducting the celebrating crowd afterwards with the exuberance of a whole pit-full of Barbirollis, then he deserved every minute of their adoration.
Because he is so chirpily irresistible and the best showman racing has, a one-man PR agency for the sport, we sometimes forget the quieter qualities this instinctive horseman can demonstrate in the saddle. Golden Horn’s owner, the astute owner-breeder Anthony Oppenheimer, had originally doubted he would last the Derby distance before gambling £75,000 on his late supplementary entry for the race. ‘Be cool, take your time,’ trainer John Gosden had told Frankie, the jockey he had, as a father figure, first helped to mould many years before.
But revved up by the Epsom razamatazz, Golden Horn charged out of the stalls with more excitement than his trainer or jockey would have wished, presenting the kind of dilemma that race riders have half a second to sort out. Fashion, and Lester Piggott, dictate that you need early pace at Epsom and that you cannot afford to get too far adrift of the leaders because of the effort needed to make up the ground later. But quietly yet firmly Frankie won the early argument with his eager mount and put him to sleep at the back of the pack. When Elm Park, unsuited to the firm ground, became lit up and dictated a hot pace early on, going clear of the field with Aidan O’Brien’s Hans Holbein, Dettori did not panic and press any buttons prematurely. Coming round Tattenham Corner, he and Golden Horn still had only three behind them. But Frankie knew how much horse he had under him. As instructed, he waited until the two-furlong marker before moving up to his impressive stablemate Jack Hobbs and going clear with a thrilling surge of power. It was ‘job done: let the celebrations begin’ and if it was a triumph for Frankie it was even more so for John Gosden, one of racing’s most original and authoritative figures. Who else, for instance, would have started Jack Hobbs’s Classic-seeking career on the all-weather at Wolverhampton and Golden Horn’s in a Nottingham maiden? Last August the Newmarket-based perfectionist had chided himself for overdoing it on the gallops with the pair of them. Now he had trained them to finish first and second in the Dante, the key Derby trial, and then in the great race itself. The Sporting Life ran a questioning article in 1996 headlined ‘How Good is Gosden?’ He answered that in the best way by training Benny the Dip to win the Derby of 1997. Plenty more Classic successes have followed, as well as the Trainers’ Championship in 2012, and this column’s admiration for the master of Clarehaven has regularly been made clear, not least because of his thoughtfulness about racing’s wider issues.
This latest Derby, too, highlighted a whole series of the accidentals and story-lines that enliven the whole sport. Two years ago, it looked as though the skids were under Frankie Dettori. He lost his job as top rider to the Godolphin empire of Sheikh Mohammed, the man who first persuaded John Gosden to return from America to train in Britain. Frankie then had to serve a six- month ban for a drug-related offence. He had had no ride at all in the Derby for four years. Now, at 44, he has a lucrative Qatari riding contract and a renewed association with his old mentor who reckons Britain’s favourite Italian has five years of riding left in him. As Frankie told us at Epsom, ‘I’ve had a colourful life and I’m not finished.’
Jack Hobbs is still part-owned by John Gosden’s wife Rachel and two friends but ran at Epsom in the royal blue of Godolphin, Sheikh Mohammed having bought the biggest share. The rider of Jack Hobbs was the talented William Buick, until the end of last season Gosden’s stable jockey: had he not taken Godolphin’s retainer instead he would have been riding Golden Horn.
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