28 September 2003

The authorities have joined forces with enthusiastic locals in a fight to re-establish one of the country’s most famous training centres

Four horsemen walk in front of the Derby stand but is training on Epsom Downs facing its own apocalypse?

Just 12 miles as the crow flies from Hyde Park Corner these are among the most famous open spaces not just in racing but in the country itself. For more than 200 years the Derby has drawn the crowds to the Downs in early June, but even before the race’s founding the immortal Eclipse had used these slopes to leave all his pursuers trailing. Derby and Grand National winners have been trained here and when I first rode up these gallops in 1965 it was a place of busy, if sometimes rather conspiratorial, self-confidence.

Then there were some 19 trainers and almost 600 horses using the area, and in 1969, John Sutcliffe was to saddle Right Tack to win the 2,000 Guineas and Jimmy Reppin to take the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot. This week we were down to nine training yards and only 200 horses. A year ago today the town was celebrating Where Or When’s Group One success in the Queen Elizabeth II to cap a resurgent season for his trainer, Terry Mills, whose 35 victories and £700,000 earnings took him to 18th place in the table. But only two of the others, Simon Dow (61st place with 26 winners and £260,000) and John Akehurst (73rd with 14 winners and £170,000) were in the top 100.

This year the situation is even worse. Sure, Terry Mills’s state-of-the-art Loretta Lodge operation up the Headley Road are flying the flag again, but they were still battling in 43rd place before Where Or When’s sixth place in his attempted Queen Elizabeth follow-up yesterday. Simon Dow has posted only four winners in a virus-ridden nightmare of a season, leaving John Akehurst with 10 winners and only £100,000 in earnings, to head up the rest of the Epsom trainers at 104th position in the rankings.

It seemed time to take to the saddle again and the journey there reminded you how many old names and stables had been lost. Thirty Acre Barn, from where Geoff Lewis sent Lake Coniston to win the July Cup, lies empty, so, too, The Limes where John Benstead, who trained for years for Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum, sent out Blue Refrain to triumph at three consecutive Royal Ascot meetings.

With investment and change of ownership those yards could yet be revived but 18 have already gone for housing and without restrictions on change of use (as happens at Newmarket) the fact remains that the premises are worth far more for humans than for horses. The tide towards the apocalypse is running strong.

South Hatch Stables was where Walter Nightingall trained Vienna and Colonist II for Winston Churchill (are you listening Tony Blair?). More recently Reg Akehurst hit many a big-race jackpot with a 60-horse string. Now the yard is divided between his son, John, and second-season trainer Jim Boyle. The yard is functional and Boyle’s team are enthusiastic. The results, six wins and 17 seconds, are encouraging enough to have already brought six new recruits from the yearling sales. But no one would ever confuse this with the Newmarket yards at the top of the tree or even with the smaller new ones on the town’s Hamilton Road on land leased by the Jockey Club.

As our little band wend their way up through big paddocks and sandy walkways towards the distant Grandstand, we see the site close to South Hatch, where owner John Hopkins wants to build an 80-box yard with best amenities and accommodation for both horses and staff. But as he prepares his application he faces the central problem of the Epsom training grounds: green-belt restrictions which, unless eased, will see the end of the green industry of racehorse training with all the employment and tradition so involved.

A week ago I was riding out in Newmarket and over the Bury Road there were longer queues of horses than of cars as we waited to whiz up the Polytack, with Warren Hill almost anthill-busy while so many of the town’s 2,500 thoroughbreds limbered up. Now at Epsom there was just one other little posse as we crossed the road in front of the Derby stables and made our way across the green strip of racetrack to walk down to the five-furlong all-weather strip in Langley Vale. It would be easy to be depressed had it not been such a heart-stoppingly beautiful morning and the passing car had not been driven by the embattled but implacable Simon Dow.

Dow is an Epsom crusader, whose tireless efforts on behalf of his fellow trainers deserve an honour almost as much as his own stable does not deserve its present troubles. “Unless we fight for our very existence,” he says, “we certainly won’t survive. At least now we are pulling together and are gathering people and plans around us.” As he talks, you try to imagine the little acorn of hope growing into a great oak of recovery. A `Vision Document’ is being prepared with the enthusiastic help of local MP Chris Grayling and the town clerk.

\Grayling has been at pains to link all the local authorities and also incorporate the racecourse who run the extensive Epsom Downs and Walton Downs gallops and whose parent company, Racecourse Holdings Trust, are owned by the Jockey Club. That august body’s training grounds have made Newmarket a 72-trainer metropolis and their huge funds could surely be well used to guarantee Epsom’s future.

The basic plan is to build four, 25-box, modern `starter yards’ as well as affordable housing so as to attract young and ambitious trainers as well as good staff to the area. The planners are confident they have the right locations and that their gallops can take up to another 200 horses. There is discussion as to how much should be new, how much should be old yards renovated, and Grayling is unapologetically tough on any sell-off plans racing peer Lord Halifax may have for his historic but dilapidated pile at The Durdans. But you can sense a spirit of belief, and Dow is clear about where he thinks some extra backing should come from.

He looks across at the Grandstand where the Jockey Club heavyweights, top-hatted and proud, will greet the Queen next June. “They are knowledgeable people with a great passion for the sport,” he says generously, “but they don’t understand about Epsom, won’t come down here of a morning, their world is Newmarket. Things are different here but we have proved we can train. It is a question of getting some new blood in, a question of support.”

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