It was 40 years ago, June 7, 1976 to be exact, that I attended my first Epsom Derby. That is the follies part of this column. The following year I returned to England for Royal Ascot, and then in 1978, I went all-in and attended both the Derby and Royal Ascot. A few months later I met my wife-to-be and thus ended my annual racing sojourns to England.
With the Derby normally run on the same day as the Belmont Stakes, and with me covering the Belmont for Daily Racing Form and then Blood-Horse for so many years, I either missed the race or was able to catch it at the Morning Line kitchen on the Belmont backstretch.
But this year, with the Belmont being run so late, I had the Epsom Derby all to myself in the comfort of my den. Although it was an exciting finish, it wasn’t the race itself that brought back a flood of memories, but a name in several pedigrees. I discovered, much to my delight, that the first, second, fourth, and fifth-place finishers of the Derby all traced (in their female family) to Mill Reef’s son Shirley Heights.
That’s when the images of the 1978 Epsom Derby flashed before my eyes as if it were yesterday. Robert Sangster had a 25-1 shot in the race named Hawaiian Sound, and he shocked the world by doing the unthinkable. He went against all tradition and logic and named Bill Shoemaker to ride the son of Hawaii.
An American jockey, even one as legendary as Shoemaker, riding such an irregular course as Epsom, with its uphill and downhill runs and banked straightaway in the Derby seemed insane. There was no way Shoemaker could get the hang of such a tricky course and keep a horse balanced and judge the pace, especially handling that nasty downhill run to Tattenham Corner and then an uphill run to the finish. Epsom made Churchill Downs look like a merry-go-round.
Hawaiian Sound was a horse who had natural early speed, and Shoemaker took his near-impossible task to another level by actually attempting to wire his field. This wasn’t America. It is extremely rare for a horse to lead every step of the way in the Derby, especially considering there is often a pacesetter or two in the race. But Sangster and trainer Barry Hills obviously felt that an American rider had a better chance on the front end, where he was more comfortable than a European rider, especially after Braulio Baeza had wired his field aboard Roberto in the 1972 Benson and Hedges Gold Cup in course-record time, handing the great Brigadier Gerard his first career defeat. That was the idea of Roberto’s owner John Galbreath, and Sangster decided to try the same tactics.
Shoemaker sent Hawaiian Sound to the lead and, much to the amazement of everyone at Epsom, just kept going. With two furlongs to go, Hawaiian Sound was still in front and actually looked like he could pull it off. Having bet the horse only because of Shoemaker, I was already counting my money. Then, in the final furlong, here came Shirley Heights darting to the inside of Hawaiian Sound and just getting up to win by a head under veteran rider Greville Starkey. Everyone paid tribute to Shoemaker for his outstanding ride.
Hawaiian Sound, who Sangster purchased as a yearling for a mere $32,000, went on to be a group I winner and placed in the Irish Derby and King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes. After returning to his birthplace, Arthur B. Hancock III’s Stone Farm in Paris, Kentucky, he eventually wound up standing at stud in Texas and died in the same state in which Bill Shoemaker was born, so very far away from Epsom, where they almost pulled off one of the greatest and miraculous victories in Derby history.
The 1978 Epsom Derby may very well be Bill Shoemaker’s greatest ride that no one remembers. I was there and I remember.
Shirley Heights, whose sire, Mill Reef, was one of my all-time favorite horses, and whom I visited at England’s National Stud, became one of the most influential sires of his time, and it is obvious his impact on the breed is still being felt in a major way.
Now, let’s back up two years to the follies, and my memorable first Epsom Derby 40 years ago.
When I landed at Heathrow Airport, I was already obsessed with Epsom and the Derby, thanks to names like Sea-Bird, Nijinsky, Mill Reef, and Roberto. I was in my European racing phase, and all I wanted to do was see Epsom with my own eyes, and because of my often obsessive behavior it had to be that first day.
The first foolish thing I did was to arrange to pick up a rental car at Heathrow. Needless to say that while driving to London on the wrong side of the road it did not take me long to realize that I may have made an error in judgment. As soon as I entered the city I ran into a massive traffic jam and found myself creeping along past Harrad’s Department Store. But I needed to check into my hotel and then get right back in the car and drive to Epsom, as warped a plan as that may have been.
Unfortunately, I first had to drive through Piccadilly Circus, not knowing it was I who would be the clown in this circus. The streets were so narrow, every turn would send my car up onto the curb. Driving down one of the streets, it was so narrow I literally could not fit through, and a gentleman was kind enough to get in my car and extricate it from the tight squeeze in which I had put it.
After driving aimlessly through one befuddling intersection after another, I finally made it to my hotel, which was a major chain and looked nice, and jet lag or no jet lag, the impulsive me was determined to drive to Epsom. It was there and I needed to see it and take photos...that day. A Pakistani man behind the desk gave me some cryptic directions, telling me to cross over the Thames River and follow Brixton Road, which would turn into the A23 or A24, or something to that effect. Well, I pictured the A23 to be a major highway like I-95. Uh, no. Not a highway, freeway, thruway or turnpike in sight; just the same London road that would never end.
I was told the drive was about 30 or 40 minutes. No sweat, I would be there with plenty of daylight left to walk the course and take photos. Two hours later I was still on Brixton Road. Three hours later I had no idea where I was. I had people telling me to follow them, but lost them. I had people opening up their street map on my fender and giving me directions. I encountered my first roundabout and managed to cut off two police cars that were whizzing around it with their sirens blaring. I immediately pictured myself spending my first day in England in jail. Surely, I would play dumb American and they would let me go with a scolding. Thankfully, they had more important matters to attend to and ignored my horrific driving and my attempt to impede justice.
So I kept driving aimlessly, having no idea if I was on the A23 or A24 or some other bingo number. It was now getting late. The day was almost over and not a sign of Epsom. Would I have to attempt to return to London in the dark?
Finally, I saw a sign that read “Brighton 6 kilomoters.” Now, even I knew that Brighton was the end of England. There was nothing beyond Brighton but the English Channel. That was it. I was done…defeated…broken. I turned around in the hope of finding my way back to London before dark. Going back the opposite way there were constant signs for London, so no problem. Just then, I saw it, in flashing, glittering letters that beamed “Emerald City.” A sign for Epsom, and I was close.
So I followed the signs and there it was in all its glory -- people frolicking about, driving across the course, walking their dogs, picnicking. It had taken me four hours, but here I was walking on the hallowed ground of Epsom Downs, strolling down the steep hill of Tattenham Corner and looking down that mind-boggling stretch, where the ground was actually tilted to the left, and then that crazy uphill run to the finish. I took my pictures, got back in my car, followed the signs to London and whizzed back, crossing the Thames, and then taking another hour to find my hotel.
Knocked out from the jet lag and the longest, most aggravating day of my life, I flopped down on my bed, which for some reason was on wheels, and conked out, only to wake up hours later with my bed literally on the other side of the room. OK, so I also picked a bad hotel.
But in the end, I attended my first Derby and Oaks with my friend Peter Scott of the Daily Telegraph, saw the magnificent filly Pawneese romp in the Oaks and French invader Empery, trained by Maurice Zilber and owned by Nelson Bunker Hunt, win a rather uneventful Derby under Lester Piggott, took pictures of The Queen in her box, survived a visit to the infield, which made the Kentucky Derby infield look like a tea party, and watched people running stark naked on the course after the races.
Oh, by the way, when I returned to my hotel that first day, I immediately call Swan Rent-a-Car and told them to send someone to my hotel and take back their car. I never drove in England again.