Ian Balding: The Derby, its ultimate inside story

Illustrious careers are made and lost in a single afternoon in June on the Epsom Downs, when the finest three-year-old colts in Europe meet to decide which will enter Turf history as pre-eminent in its year. Ian Balding, who trained Mill Reef to win in 1971, reveals what makes it the greatest test of horse and jockey, and why it is so extraordinarily difficult to ride.


What makes The Derby so special is not easy to explain. Everybody involved in racing wants to win it more than any other race, and the public at large is more aware of it. For years it was run midweek, usually on a Wednesday, and it was said that a working man took a day off and a gentleman took his mistress (Royal Ascot was reserved for his wife). In recent years it has been run on a Saturday, re-establishing its place at the top of the sporting calendar.

The Derby is not only the major and most valuable Classic race for three-year-olds, but the distance of the race (a mile and a half) and the contours of the unique undulating track at Epsom make it the supreme test for horse and jockey during the whole of the Flat race season. A horse must have speed to get into a good position early in the race for the first bend to the right and uphill. It must have good balance to keep its place as the course sweeps round to the left downhill and around Tattenham Corner. Lastly, it must have the stamina to finish uphill and cope with the camber of the track, which slopes considerably from the stands down left-handed towards the inside running rail. This camber means that the course is 6ft higher on the stands rail than on the inside rail. All horses tend to hang down this slope, and, unusually, jockeys need to use their stick in their left hand to try and avoid this happening.

It is an accident of history that The Derby should be run on such a difficult course but nobody could have devised a more exacting test for an inexperienced and to some extent immature colt. In most races it is considered that a horse contributes 90% towards the outcome and the jockey 10%. But in The Derby the influence of the jockey may be as much as 20%. That is how difficult this race is to ride.

About 15 years ago the chairman of Racecourse Holdings Trust (now Jockey Club Racecourses), who own Epsom, very sensibly invited a dozen of the senior Flat trainers to a meeting over dinner. He asked us how they could maintain The Derby as the most prestigious horse race in the world. We told him that as long as the race kept its place as the most valuable race in Europe, and as long as they ensured that the ground was always good, The Derby would retain its revered position in the world of Flat racing. Full marks to Epsom, because they have done just that. With the enormous help of Vodaphone, who are sponsoring the race again this year for the 14thconsecutive time, the value of this year’s race is £1.25m. As for the ground, it is perfect (whereas often it used to be firm) and the turf at Epsom—thanks partially to having very little racing before their big day, but more perhaps to good husbandry by the clerk of the course—is considered by most trainers and jockeys to be the best in England.

Most of the great racehorses in European racing have won this race and many have gone on to become great stallions, and thus The Derby has also shaped the history of our thoroughbred stud book. Names such as Sea Bird, Sir Ivor, Nijinksy, Mill Reef, Grundy and Shergar bring back wonderful memories. In recent years Sinndar, Galileo, Motivator and last year’s winner Authorized were all considered supreme champions who may also have glittering careers as stallions.

All racehorse owners want to win this race more than any other and none more so than those two great rivals John Magnier, with his Coolmore partners, and Sheikh Mohammed. The Aga Khan has a formidable record as an owner-breeder as does Prince Khaled Abdullah. The Queen herself, who graces the whole occasion with her presence every year, would love to win it and came close many years ago with Aureole, who was second to the great Pinza in 1953.

What it means to win The Derby is perhaps best demonstrated by the reaction of the distinguished American philanthropist and art collector, Paul Mellon, who won the race in 1971 with Mill Reef. He was asked later what he regarded as his proudest achievement—designing and building the East Wing of the National Gallery in Washington, or the centre of Art at Yale—both of which he gave to the American nation. He replied, ‘Both I suppose—after winning The Derby.’ As his trainer, and good friend for 35 years, I happen to know that the first Wednesday of June in 1971 was the happiest, most exciting day of his long and illustrious life.

It is also the ultimate ambition in a jockey’s life to win this race and one could see how much it meant to Frankie Dettori last year when finally he won it at the 15thattempt. That other great champion of yesteryear, Sir Gordon Richards, won it only once in more than 20 attempts, on Pinza.  Perhaps the greatest jockey of all time, Lester Piggott, won it on no fewer than nine occasions and his particular brand of courage, timing and strength was obviously ideally suited to the demands of the race. He was the ultimate cool jockey, with the confidence to ride round on the inside and wait for the inevitable gap to appear. Lester was not just a great jockey, but he had the most extraordinary knack of being able to get himself on to the best horse.

As one would expect, winning The Derby is a desire of every trainer. Noel Murless, his son-in-law Henry Cecil, Dick Hern, Michael Stoute and Aidan O’Brien are the most successful winning trainers in recent times. However, the man who won it six times and was considered the greatest trainer of all is the legendary Vincent O’Brien; fittingly in this the 229thyear of this historic race, he is the Guest of Honour at Epsom. Accepting the honour this year, he wrote, ‘There is no doubt that winning the six Derbys gave me the six greatest thrills of my life. The three-year-old colt has just one chance at this race, one day only in his life and I have been fortunate enough to train those six great horses who won the race for me. It is in recognition of their ability stamina and courage, the skill of their jockeys and the support of our stable that I am proud to accept this honour.

‘It is more than 65 years since I took out my trainer’s licence and so much has changed at Epsom during that time—starting stalls, supplementary entries, prize money, patrol cameras, watering, elaborate grandstands, improvements to the track and even a Saturday Derby.  But some things have not and never will change—the pounding heartbeat one feels as the horses come round Tattenham Corner and the thrill of the uphill finish whether the victory is easy like Nijinsky’s, or by an inch like Roberto’s. For me an Epsom Derby win is the greatest prize of all—the ultimate goal for a trainer—and it has been thus for over 200 years.’