Epsom Downs 3: 1977

 

Thousands of cockneys will not walk from the East End to Surrey this weekend. The nation won’t stop in
its tracks to watch the most famous race in the world.

All that stopped happening a long time ago.

Sporting romance is not dead, just poorly.

Two generations ago The Derby was still run on a Wednesday. Over 100,000 regularly attended. In
1977 their number included a company of young actors.

Joint Stock was based at the old Roundhouse in Chalk Farm. From the Spring they had been visiting
racecourses, observing the characters.  In August their play Epsom Downs opened in London. The
Guardian praised it as ‘an exuberant documentary about a secular festival’ and The Sunday Times
remarked that it was ‘a kaleidoscopic sequence … entertainment and shrewd social comment’.

The Roundhouse, London

A different script, very familiar and extremely English, was played out on the day. There was a cool
breeze, the sun shone, and the housewives favourite won.

The Aga Khan-owned Blushing Groom went off 9/4 favourite, backed in from 11/4. Henri Samani, the
jockey, was considered at a disadvantage due to his lack of experience at the track, but the main
doubt was whether this brilliant colt would get the twelve furlong trip. His sire hadn’t raced beyond a
mile, and nor had he. Lester Piggott on The Minstrel, 5/1 from 8/1, had the same issue.

The Aga Khan-owned Blushing Groom

Willie Carson had never won the Derby. His mount Hot Grove, who he later described as a ‘glorified
hurdler’, was weak in the betting and drifted to 15/1. But Willie had a plan to expose the weaknesses
of the market leaders. It almost worked.

A huge field of 22 jumped. The play describes the action.

Clang go the gates. Leap goes twelve tons of horse and man.

Samani positioned the fav on the inside, conserving energy and saving ground, Carson was wider and
Lester missed it…

What the fuck is Piggott doing… in amongst the stragglers 

Half way and it was as you were. Various no-hopers were busting their energy at the front end, but
Lester was manoeuvring…

Sneaking up from the back to sniff the bollocks of the French favourite … Lester’s brain ticks…

Down the hill. Carson moved, Lester threaded and Samani waited. Round Tattenham Corner most of
the field was already beaten.

The crucifixion of the horse that won’t stay begins…

Then Carson went for broke.

Willie Carson, like a pea on a drum… he thinks the race is his.

From one off the fence Lester burst from the pack, two and a half lengths down.

Piggott lets the reins slip two inches through the palms of his hands, The Minstrel responds, a bat out of
hell …

Samani had waited till the last moment.

And Blushing Groom unleashes a run … will the favourite stay? 

For a few seconds his supporters were expecting the usual blistering finish. He quickly took third.

Genes in the animal’s chromosomes grind and shudder … Blushing Groom has nothing left… milles fois
merdes…

The Groom… French, brothel-creeper of an animal… was beaten five lengths. The jockey gave him every
chance. The Minstrel got up by a neck.

God save our gracious Lester, long live our noble Lester…

It was the silver jubilee, after all.

Willie felt he never got the credit for nearly stealing The Derby with a horse of limited ability. He said
‘Piggott had to knock skittles out of The Minstrel to get to me’.

‘It must have looked as if he would hold on’, said Piggott, ‘but I asked The Minstrel for a little more
and from somewhere he found it. When we turned into the straight, I thought we’d left it too late’.

The Minstrel and his jockey were led into the enclosure. From the latter there was no celebration, no
acknowledgement and no smile. Piggott dismounted and attended to the necessities.

God bless you, Lester, wherever you are. Sipping your half glass of champagne…

Here is what the BBC showed 43 years ago.