Archive for May, 2012

Derby Day – poem

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Derby Day

 Derby Day was here,

The Thoroughbred in bloom,

The hopes and dreams of many men

Were shown this afternoon.

 

If you were in the Queen’s Stand,

Or out there on the Downs,

Or riding in the funfair,

The magic came around.

 

The scene could run forever,

As only the players change,

You make a bet, they shout “They’re off”,

You turn another page.

 

 

                                                           Michael Church, Derby Day

 

Racing to School

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Racing to School

As the Official Derby Historian, I was recently asked by the Marketing Department of Epsom Racecourse, to give the pupils of six local schools a series of half-hour talks on the history of the Derby, as part of the racecourse experience.

“This should be fun,” I thought. And when I was told the age of the 240 pupils attending over two days – 10-11 year-olds – I knew it would be have to be different from any other talk I had given.

The educational programme was run by the charity, British Horseracing Education and Standards Trust, known as Bhest. Their programme, which went to all 60 racecourses in Britain, was free and available to pupils and students of all ages throughout the UK. The daily schedule, which ran from 9.30 am to 2.40 pm, was hectic, but well run under the leadership of Ollie McPhail, an ex National Hunt jockey who had previously survived nine operations after a fall at the Chair fence at Aintree.

Although the children were taken to various parts of the stands and racecourse I was billeted in the Queen’s Stand cinema, where one class after another rushed in and rushed out after being given a brief history – racing at Epsom in the time of the Roundheads and Cavaliers, the foundation of the Derby, the suffragette, Emily Davison, Mill Reef, the disappearance of Shergar, modern day racing and the Queen’s involvement at Epsom.

The “any questions” at the conclusion of each session was both interesting and hilarious. One earnest little boy inquired, “When a horse breaks its leg and they shoot it, do they also shoot the jockey if he breaks his leg?”

Ollie McPhail was living proof that they don’t!”

Since I was standing in front of an Investec sponsors board, another boy inquired, are Zebra’s allowed to run in the Derby?”

All the children and their teacher’s seemed to have had a good time, washed down in the interval with various squashes and biscuits.

Needless to say, the more informed teacher’s and pupils discreetly asked who they should watch for in this year’s Derby. My reply of, “ Camelot,” was seen written into one or two exercise books!

The schools taking part were:

The Vale Primary School

Shawley Community Primary School

Tadworth Primary School

Warren Mead Junior School

Walton On The Hill Primary School

Riverview C Of E Primary School

The Derby Chart

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The Derby Chart

Her Majesty the Queen was due to open Epsom’s magnificent, new Queen’s Stand on the first Wednesday in June 1992 – Derby Day.

  The previous Monday, knowing of my life-long interest in the great race, Father Green telephoned me to enquire if Pat and I would be going as usual.

 “The opening of the Queen’s Stand, will be a historic occasion,” Perry enthused, “and I would dearly like to see the Queen herself.”

“O.K, well how about if we meet you on the front steps of the new stand at noon,” I suggested.

“We may be able to get a close view of the ceremony from near the winner’s enclosure and afterwards, you can come back to meet our picnic party in the Members car park.

“Sounds great, Michael. Give Pat my love and I’ll see you both on Wednesday.”

 

On a sunny Derby Day, Father Green and I watched the Queen, in a straw-coloured outfit with hat to match, unveil a plaque near the weighing room, so officially opening the Queen’s Stand.

Perry was delighted to see the Queen close-up, although he appeared to be embarrassed when recognised by a group of regular racegoers.

Returning to our little picnic, we introduced him to Pat’s friends Ingrid and Irene, who kept his glass replenished until we all made our way over to the stands for the first race at 2.15.

At this point, I must tell you that today, I was to add the name of this year’s Derby winner to my new Derby Charta large, hand written parchment chart showing the male linage of every winner from 1780, which, when completed, was to be shown live on Channel 4.

Just before the first race, I was informed by one of the Channel 4 staff to go down to the Paddock, then situated about a furlong away. There, I would find a green corrugated iron tower, and after entering by a dilapidated door at the bottom and climbing a makeshift staircase, I would meet John Francome and Lord Oaksey.

“You can spread your chart on the floor behind us”, said Francome, cheerfully.

“When you’ve put today’s winner in, I’ll give ‘mission control’ the word and they’ll take you back to the cameras.”

It sounded reasonable and having previously traced the descent of all the fancied runners back to the Thoroughbred’s founding fathers, I waited, papers spread out on the floor, whilst two feet away Messers Oaksey and Francome gave their paddock comments live to the nation.

But, imagine my horror, when I realised I would now have to watch the Derby with them on their 12 inch TV monitor.

Slowly, my mood changed to total despondency – watching the Derby live was one of the highlights of my year – and in over 40 years I had only missed it twice.

Strangely, when the Derby was in progress, I found myself constantly checking the leaders, to see where they would fit into my chart, rather than eagerly following the horses I had backed.

Accepting my lot, I watched the tiny image of Twist and Turn lead into the straight followed by Great Palm, Dr Devious and St Jovite. Then, approaching the distance, the three of us huddled together, our intense faces, only a foot from the screen, as Dr Devious drew alongside Twist and Turn, before clearing away to win by two lengths.

Oaksey commented that, “St Jovite has kept on one-paced to be second, while Silver Wisp has run on to be third.”

 

Stifling my frayed emotions I delved into my notes. Incredibly, Dr Devious had been the only runner descended from the Byerley Turk – a Founding Father of the Thoroughbred who was captured from the Turkish army at Buda in 1687 and ridden by Captain Byerley at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

Whilst I waited and waited, to present my updated chart, Pat and her friends, together with Father Green were enjoying the sunny afternoon and backing the winners, Dr Devious at 8-1 and Viceroy at 13-2.

At the end of the broadcast, I was escorted to Channel 4 ‘mission control,’ where I was told sympathetically that if I could come back tomorrow, they would make every effort to show the chart. Even so, I felt a deep regret at the loss of a Derby Day I had so eagerly awaited.

 

  When eventually, I got back to our party, Father Green had gone, apologising to Pat, that he had to get back, “But tell Michael, I’ll be here again tomorrow for the Coronation Cup.”

 

***

  The next day, I spotted Perry on the horizon, almost head and shoulders above the other racegoers, dog collar back on today and that distinctive Homburg – unmistakable.

“Glad to see you again Father,” I said, as we negotiated the revolving door into the Queen’s Stand.

“There is a cloakroom on the right if you want to check-in your case.”  Father Green handed in a very large Lieberman & Gortz binocular case, which looked as if it had survived its own private war. He then accompanied me to Channel 4 mission control, where I was told John Oaksey and Derek Thompson would discuss the chart in front of the cameras immediately after the first race.

At that time, Lord Oaksey very kindly came out and signed his latest book for me, a present from my daughter Mia. Soon after, Brough Scott came to reassure me that my chart was on the schedule.

Meanwhile, Father Green, having already accepted some liquid hospitality, was quizzing another TV pundit on the true state of the going.

However, with the first race off and running, I urgently called out,

“I’ll have to go now, Father, or I’ll miss seeing the chart on TV.”

Perry and I stood just behind the cameras as the double act of Thompson and Oaksey traced the lineage from the Byerley Turk down to Dr Devious, stopping briefly on the more recent horses to add a comment on their achievements. Finally, John Oaksey kindly gave viewers the phone number of Racing Post, where the chart was on sale.

It worked well. Perry congratulated me, and we celebrated in the bar with a pint or two of Guinness.

It was not until we emerged from the bar into the bright sunlight, that we realised we had missed yet another race. Nonetheless, Perry, undeterred, went about thumbing the pages of his form book.

Patiently waiting nearby for ten minutes in stony silence, I ventured to ask him what he fancied.

“Tis a terrible tricky race yer know. So, Michael, I’m going to let my heart rule my head and go for Allthruthenight. It’s a sort of lullaby yer know.”

 

He broke off to softly sing the first lines.

“Sleep, my child, and peace attend thee,

All through the night.”

“I remember my mammy singing it to me as a child. Silly, I know, but I’m having a tenner on it anyway.”

“And why not?” I responded, “Put me a tenner on too.”

Minutes later, Graham Goode cut in.

“All in for the Stanley Wootton Handicap, run over the fastest five-furlong course in the world, and…. they’re off.”

Father Green and I stood at the bottom the slopping Members lawn, glasses trained down the course and hearing only the names of Absolutely Nuts and Inherent Magic. Then, no more than half-a-dozen strides from the post, Allthruthenight thundered past to join Inherent Magic on the line – Photograph, photograph.

“Unbelievable,” said Perry, although his facial expression was still in no-man’s land, until finally, we heard “First, Allthruthenight.”

 

Having collected our £300 from the genial John White, BPA, we decided it was appropriate to revisit the bar. At the end of his second pint, Perry looked up to catch sight of himself in the mirror behind the bar. It was then he realised he wasn’t wearing his Homburg.

“Someone must have kept it behind the bar?” he said, hopefully.

But no, no-one had seen it and the barman couldn’t remember if he had it on when he was there earlier.

From then on, the rest of the afternoon was taken up with fitful visits to the Racing Office, Channel 4 mission control, the cloakroom check in, and then back to enquire at the bar again. But, for all that, no-one, and that must have included half the attendance of the Queen’s Stand, had seen Father Green’s Homburg.

Perry was now descending into depression. As much, I thought, from the booze as from the sentimental attachment he placed on his hat.

With my sympathy almost exhausted, I tried to uplift his mood by reminding him, “Last race Perry. Have you got a fancy?”

“No, but I suppose I should have,” he said, plunging into his brief case for the form book.

The race was a three-year-old maiden, over ten furlongs and the Gosden-trained Scrutineer, a recent second to Cezanne, looked according to Father Green, “The nearest thing to a certainty on a racecourse.”

Gathering perhaps the last of his optimism he walked along the line of bookies, taking £60 to 40 three times. The last bet synchronising with the commentators, “Off and running in the lucky last.”

Perry, hatless of course, never blinked after lowering his binoculars two furlongs out. But a weaker man might have, as Milzig began to rein in the favourite, with both jockeys hard at work.

Yards from the post, Scrutineer, responding well, got there by half-a-length.

Coming into the winner’s enclosure, Perry shouted out, “Well done,” to Ray Cochrane, who pleased him by touching his cap.

“Time to go home I suppose, Michael,” said Perry, stuffing £300 into his already bulging wallet. After which, his mood softened to admit, “In truth, you know Michael, that Homburg was really quite battered, and due for replacement anyway.”

Just then, coming out of the Queen’s Stand and across the grass, we saw three young lads, one on the shoulders of a donkey. They were laughing and fooling around. Suddenly, they all ran off and on top of the donkey’s head appeared a Homburg hat!

Perry instinctively ran towards them and when almost within reach of his beloved Homburg, two policemen came up behind him.

“What sought of a prank do you call this, Father? Surely, a man of the cloth ought to be setting the younger generation an example?”

Perry didn’t wait to explain, but took off to try and retrieve his hat. Thus leaving me with a picture, I was never to forget, of a tall priest pursuing a lively donkey wearing a battered Homburg!

 

 This story is from Michael’s book, 

 The Gambling Adventures of Father Green,

of which he has a few signed copies for sale.