Brough Scott: Time to walk not talk [H&H VIP]

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  • The Derby is coming and it is time to walk not talk.

    A fortnight ago, I walked Newmarket’s Rowley Mile before the 2000 Guineas. Next week I shall trek Epsom’s 1½ miles. Everyone should.

    For I know of nothing — except hacking a horse around them, for which you are unlikely to get permission — that can so enhance the appreciation of what a 3-year-old colt is being asked to do at this stage of his career.

    You may have watched countless replays of Guineas and Derbys on TV, or indeed races live from the stands at Newmarket and Epsom. But I promise you that actually traversing the distance at ground level transforms your understanding of the task in hand.

    It begins quite literally from the start. Standing on Guineas day where the stalls were to be parked a few hours later gave me an immediate and prophetic insight to the problems that were to confront both horse and jockey.

    The 8 furlongs that stretch ahead are pitilessly straight and enormously wide. With the rails way out on either side, any move towards them could split the field and define the race. It did.

    For the Newmarket undulations are far more pronounced than you would ever guess.

    The run down to the dip and the final furlong climb to the winning post would be nothing out hunting, but on the 3-year-old at close to 40mph, they put huge stress on balance and momentum.

    Add the fact, as happened to Australia last month, that the leader on one side had to both win his own race but match that of main rival Kingman 20m away to his right, and the true drama becomes apparent. What’s more, the final climb then had its say.

    Just as Australia matched Kingman, Night Of Thunder lunged past them both, even though the pressure of the hill had him swerving like a snipe in doing so.

    The Derby course makes Newmarket look like a polo field. The start takes your breath away. The route rises so sharply that you are out of sight within 2 furlongs.

    It forces you over to the right rail in the 1st 1/4 mile, then tacks the pack back across to the left rail, with inevitable bunching and screaming.

    If you survive that and reach the top of the hill, you are launched into the long downward helter-skelter that culminates in Tattenham Corner.

    Walk down through that and you might presume the Epsom straight would be easy. It isn’t.

    If you stick along the inside rail, the track cambers up a whole body height to the outside.

    Some camera angles give a bit of an insight, but nothing beats walking down and looking at it. Then you understand. When a jockey gets a Derby horse into top gear, he has to do as much balancing as driving.

    Pick your whip up and give him a crack without holding on to his head and he will lunge left down into the horse beside him and the next thing you know, you have both hands on the reins trying to pull him straight. It happens every year. It always will.

    All this, of course, is for horses of very little experience. Australia was not actually 3 years old until 11 April and the four races in his life are one more than the big Godolphin hope True Story.

    Such deficiencies put special pressure on a jockey’s nerve. This was one of the steeliest of all the assets of the greatest Derby rider of them all, Lester Piggott.

    To walk the course for the 1st time, to climb up to the top of the hill and to look down and across the valley to where the Epsom grandstand looms like a great ship in the distance, is still to shake your head in wonder.

    You might think that no one would be allowed to create such a track now. You would be right.

    Almost 40 years ago, I walked it with a young French jockey who was to have his 1st Derby ride on a fancied — although unsuccessful — raider from Chantilly.

    By the time we reached the top of the hill, he looked a bit white and could take it no longer.

    “C’est fou,” he said. It’s mad. “Incroyable.” Yes, absolutely “unbelievable”. 

    This article was first published in the 15 May issue of Horse & Hound magazine