x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

The great leveller

The class barriers in Britain are down in the world of horse racing, especially on a race day.

If you think the modern football or baseball star is inclined to be a temperamental character, difficult to handle and a little skittish, then you clearly have had nothing to do with thoroughbred racehorses, whose behaviour can be quirkier than any human athlete, as those who work with them, and the unwise souls who bet on them, will testify.

The unpredictability of the animals, however, is only part of the joy of one of the great events in the British sporting calendar, the Derby, run on Epsom Downs in Surrey today, as it has been every year since 1780. More, perhaps, than any other sporting event, it is part of the fabric of British life. I went to the race last year as a spectator, without any sports writer's privileges, and the thrill of the day and the sense of anticipation are tangible. Britain, as most of the world is aware, is hidebound, even in these more democratic times, by a pretty rigid class system, but in the world of horse racing, and especially on a big race day, the barriers are down.

Taking the train from London Waterloo to Epsom, I found chaps in top hats and frock coats happily communing with people like me in jeans and T-shirts, something you would not find on a normal weekday (not that too many people these days go around in top hats and frock coats, outside of television period dramas). But that is the glory of horse racing - the absolute democracy of it. Everybody can have an opinion, and the people who have made horseflesh their life and might be expected to have built up some expertise often turn out to be no wiser than the casual enthusiast.

On the course itself, the tradition of folk from the teeming streets of East London decanting to Epsom for a breath of fresh air persists, with busloads pouring on to the Downs, enjoying picnics and fun fairs with their children. Obviously, the streets do not teem as in Edwardian times - the East End is more like a building site in advance of the 2012 Olympics - but the principle is the same. As for the race itself, even an old hack like me had a goose pimple moment when the stalls opened, but the thrill is best explained by a veteran who witnessed many derbies, won six, and poignantly departed this earth on the week of the latest; the great trainer Vincent O'Brien, who died on Monday at the age of 92.

"There is no doubt that winning the six derbies gave me the greatest thrills," he said, "Some things never changed - 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." O'Brien was also a great visionary, recognising the international potential of horse racing, in this part of the world as elsewhere. It is true to say that the richest horse race in the world, the Dubai World Cup, is part of the great trainer's legacy. At Epsom, though, even a genius like O'Brien could never say for certain whether or not it would be one of his horses thundering home first up that uphill finish, and that is what makes today such a glorious prospect.

One of the more annoying sounds disturbing the peace of an urban evening is the ubiquitous car alarm, the eruption of which is often unrelated to any criminal activity. Now, sadly, this kind of disturbing ear-splitting screech must not only be endured on our city streets, but also while watching women's tennis. The latest, and most egregious screecher is a 16-year-old Portuguese player, Michelle Larcher de Brito, whose anguished cry starts as she tosses the ball in the air to serve and continues for several seconds, climaxing as the ball is returned to her, whence without interruption it begins anew. If you think Maria Sharapova has something of the screaming banshee about her, listen to Michelle, and think again. I have had quieter times on the first bend of a F1 grand prix.

The British and Irish Lions have made a mixed start - one poor performance, one promising - to their South African tour, but will not be downhearted with two weeks still to go before the first Test in Durban. Under the captaincy of Brian O'Driscoll, head coach Ian McGeechan will be confident the requisite esprit de corps can be achieved. They will need every ounce of resolve. Francois Pienaar, the Springboks' 1995 World Cup-winning captain says the Boks are as motivated for this series as any event in their sporting history. It should be a momentous clash, and I think I speak for sports fans everywhere when I say, bring it on.