Epsom Derby tips from the clerk of the racecourse
PUBLISHED: 14:23 04 June 2015 | UPDATED: 14:54 04 June 2015
Horse racing fans will soon be roaring their favourite on to victory at the 2015 Investec Derby - and with Epsom's clerk of the course, Andrew Cooper, in charge of the track for a 20th successive year, the odds are that this will be in peak condition too…
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine June 2015
As the clock strikes 4.30pm on Saturday June 6, there will be a lot riding on what happens next at Epsom Downs Racecourse, and not only because of the cool £1.25 million prize money at stake. Watching the horses lining up for the running of the world’s greatest flat race, the 236th this year, the sense of history surrounding the two-day, blue riband event is palpable.
For the staff at the racecourse, it also marks the culmination of many months of meticulous planning – and perhaps none more so than for clerk of the course, Andrew Cooper. With his 20th Derby now approaching, few of the 120,000 spectators share his intimate knowledge of what goes on between the rails, yet even this experienced ‘ringmaster’ admits to the odd stomach flutter.
“You have to try and keep a lid on your emotions because you still have to make decisions and pull the strings on the whole operation,” says Andrew. “Although, once Derby Day arrives, there’s almost relief in a sense because there’s no more that you can physically do.”
As he explains, it’s the climax of almost 12 months’ hard graft, which has seen him and his six ground staff seeding, fertilising, mowing and, if necessary, watering the mile-and-a-half, horseshoe-shaped track into pristine condition.
“Since 1996, I’ve always taken the view that we aim never to run The Derby on ground that’s above ‘good-to-firm’,” he continues. “I would describe that as fast but with a little bit of cushioning. This is the optimum for flat racing and equine welfare on a course that’s as undulating and challenging as Epsom.
“Under the rules of racing that we work to, I have to start giving ‘going reports’ from a week ahead, as that’s when trainers make their entries and a final decision to run.”
It’s a task that sees Andrew pacing the racetrack at regular intervals with his trusted wooden walking stick, as well as using the slightly more sophisticated ‘going stick’ to provide a statistical reading. Having the eyes of the world upon him inevitably brings pressure, especially should the downland chalk’s naturally irrigated soil require softening. But as he cheerfully reflects, “you never stop learning” when coping with the vagaries of the British weather.
Compared with Esher’s Sandown Park Racecourse, which comes under his responsibility too, other challenges also surface at Epsom. Amongst these, an Act of Parliament allows the public free rein to ‘take the air and to exercise’ on The Hill 365 days a year, Derby Day included. And alongside the 11 annual days of racing they need to painstakingly prepare for, the unexpected can, and does, happen.
“There’s a family of foxes here who are taking great delight in digging-up most of the start line,” adds Andrew. “But, hey, we’re in a country environment.”
Not that these “small problems” faze someone who was brought up on a dairy farm in rural Gloucestershire. Although not a horse rider himself, having Cheltenham Racecourse less than 10 miles away clearly helped to nurture his early passion for the sport. And visiting grandparents who lived in West Horsley at the time holds memories of being brought to The Derby’s famous course back in the 1970s.
“I can still picture myself as a 10-year-old boy, standing on the home straight, and just being staggered at the sight,” he recalls.
“Although I didn’t return until I was working here as deputy clerk 27 years ago, that morning when I first drove over, all of a sudden this impressive grandstand appeared and I thought ‘Wow, this really is something very special’. It’s a feeling I still get today.”
Not surprisingly, Andrew is very highly regarded in the industry, with the regional director for London Racecourses, Rupert Trevelyan, telling Surrey Life: “It is great to have such a revered and respected clerk on the team. Andrew is a real gent and his reputation is well deserved.”
And talking to Andrew, there’s genuine pride in being a custodian of a race that was first run back in 1780. Naturally, ensuring that all goes smoothly, not only within the track but also the parade ring and racecourse stables, contributes to a successful day. However, with flat racing being all about the gene pool, if the colts that win The Derby go on to become top stallions, that gives Andrew extra job satisfaction as well.
“Personally, looking back, my favourite Derby winner was Galileo in 2001,” says Andrew. “He was such a great horse and had a son called New Approach, another champion seven years later.
“And then there’s Australia, first past the finish line in 2014, who was also one of Galileo’s offspring, this time with our Oaks winner Ouija Board. So the victors of the two best races that I’m involved with have bred another Derby winner.”
Place your bets
And the big question of course; will Andrew be placing his money on any particular horse this year?
“I take an interest in any race that I’m looking after, but in terms of betting I’m pretty lightweight,” he laughs.
Need to know:
What: Investec Derby Festival
Where: Epsom Downs Racecourse, Epsom KT18 5LQ
When: Investec Ladies’ Day takes place on Friday June 5 (remember those hats and heels for the Oaks – see page 134) and Investec Derby Day on Saturday June 6. Both days’ racing starts at 2pm – that’s half-an-hour later than previously.
How: For tickets, call 0844 579 3004 or see epsomtickets.thejockeyclub.co.uk