Talking Horses: what could King’s coronation mean for the Derby?

Derby day and Royal Ascot were apparently the first dates to be blocked off on the late Queen’s calendar every year. Her successor, on the other hand, has different interests and priorities and it will certainly ring the changes from racing’s point of view if, as has been suggested, the first Saturday in June 2023 is chosen as the date for King Charles’s coronation.

The days when the Derby was the most significant sporting occasion of the year, little or nothing could stand in its way and Parliament would adjourn to allow the honourable members to attend are ancient history – though it is fun to take a trip back in time.

“Whether we approve or whether we deplore it,” Lord Elcho told the House in 1890 as he moved the motion to adjourn, “the fact remains that tomorrow, the ‘flowing tide’ will be towards Epsom.”

Warming to his theme, Elcho continued: “I venture to say that the prospects of the [parliamentary] Session are, by many, less intelligently discussed than those of the racing season, that the withdrawal of a great Government measure would cause less excitement than the scratching of the favourite; and that, greatly as the country respects right honourable gentlemen on the Government bench, the news that the whole of them were laid low by a severe attack of influenza would be received with a feeling mild in comparison with that which would be displayed if the horse which has been principally backed were to suffer from a mild attack of the same complaint.”

Football dominates the sporting landscape these days and it may yet work to racing’s advantage that the FA Cup final is also scheduled for 3 June, perhaps persuading the new King and his planners to find a different date. But if 3 June it is, the Derby will need to move elsewhere.

The British Flat season is, to a significant extent, built around a Derby in the first week of June, so it can not move too far without upsetting the balance of the campaign. A switch to a Classic double-header on Oaks day on 2 June is one possibility – although issues around policing and security might well be a concern 24 hours earlier too – as is a one-day bump to the Sunday or a whole week to 10 June, which would leave the same short but bearable 10-day gap between Epsom and Royal Ascot that we had this year.

That would also mean a clash with the Champions League final, however, and for those fans who still hanker after a return to a midweek Derby, a switch back to the once-traditional first Wednesday – which next year is on 7 June – is an enticing alternative. For the first time since 1994, the Derby would once again have the sporting landscape pretty much to itself for 24 hours. Who knows, if the public get behind it, momentum might build for a permanent return to a Wednesday date …

This is, I suspect, wishful thinking on the part of the traditionalists and also overlooks the extent to which the Derby was in decline as a “People’s Race” before the switch to Saturdays in 1995. The crowds of 200,000 or more that could descend on Epsom in the 1970s were already a thing of the past. The move to the weekend found the big race a different audience, with more families now making an annual trip to the Downs, but it was never likely to entirely reverse a trend that had been apparent for some years.

Lord Elcho would probably be appalled, but society has changed and racing has changed. The Derby was still the season’s most popular Flat race in terms of betting turnover in 2021, according to the Levy Board, but nine National Hunt races attracted more bets from British punters, including the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle at Cheltenham in March.

The Derby is also as much a starting point these days as it is an ultimate target, with so many big races and events, including the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe and Saturday’s Champions Day at Ascot, four months distant in October.

Wherever our greatest Classic ends up next year, it is a Saturday race now with a Saturday crowd. A retreat back to Wednesday after more than a quarter of a century would be a forlorn attempt to return to an audience, and for that matter a world, that no longer exists.