If you think there is plenty of joy about for the Queen’s Jubilee, you should have been around for the Coronation. Better still, you should have been at Epsom for the Derby at the end of the week. For The Queen nearly won – and it was sunny too.
It was rainy on Coronation Day. Not that it mattered to me who through uniquely fortunate happenstance was at both Tattenham Corner and in The Mall on the two occasions. Bombed-up London had been a pretty grey place in the Forties, and while in 1951 there had been a bit of hope with the Festival of Britain and that Skylon thing, the Accession of the Queen was what really hit. She was as young and beautiful as a good Queen in the movies – and now she was going to be crowned on Tuesday and Aureole was going to win the Derby for her on Saturday. It was more than this little ten year old could ask for.
For truth be told, I probably knew more about events at Epsom than the greatest sporting achievement of that or any week. This had been splashed across the front pages on Coronation Day. It had a picture of Edmund Hilary standing with a flag at the summit. It had been the Conquest of Everest. But it was not as important as to whether the Queen would see me and my flag when she came past in her gold coach that afternoon. Well it wouldn’t, would it?
I had a flag again on the Saturday. It can’t have been the same flag as the abiding memory of when the coach finally came through Admiralty Arch and up The Mall was of literally everything being thrown in the air. It was like watching a multi-coloured fountain creeping towards you in line with this golden focus of the procession. It consisted of caps, hats, scarves, flags and anything else that came to hand being tossed upwards in this extraordinary once in a lifetime moment of jubilation.
My brother in law had been marching in the parade somewhere and because of that I was with his old mother on a makeshift stand next to Clarence House. No such privileges at Epsom, just another unforgettable memory donated by my parents. We got there early as everyone but the most regal had to do. We got ourselves a place at Tattenham Corner rather similar to the spot where Suffragette Emily Davidson had gathered herself before her suicidal run across the track and into the King’s horse Anmer exactly 40 years earlier. But we did not want to down the royal runner Aureole. Our flags were to wave him on to win.
Everybody wanted him to win. Well not quite everyone as for sports fans this 1953 Derby was a bit of a dilemma. For while we were royalists to a fault with the old King a saintly unifying figure through the blitz and all the horror of war and his daughter now so vividly devoted to the racing game, Gordon Richards was a pocket colossus who had been 26 times champion jockey but had never yet won the Derby in 27 attempts. He had been made “Sir Gordon” in the Coronation Honours and so the nation was torn between wishing for the monarch or her shortest “knight”. The money went for him. Gordon’s mount Pinza had bolted up in his comeback race at Newmarket and was 5-1 favourite alongside Aureole’s stable mate Premonition who had won the Blue Riband Trial over the last mile and a quarter of the Derby course in April. Aureole, who was fifth in the Guineas and had won the Lingfield Derby Trial, was to start at 9-1.
All this and much more was buzzing round my head as we spread our picnic blanket and secured our “Emily Davidson” pitch by the Epsom rails. Racing, and in particular the Derby, was one of the big escapist thrills in what, looking back, was an infinitely less crowded universe than the one in which a ten year old would exist today. The sports calendar offered a seemingly ordered set of glorious but no-casualty battles in a world which whilst surviving the war seemed perpetually under threat of other horrors from within or without. The Americans had just detonated an H Bomb. The Russian president Joseph Stalin had died to be replaced by even more dodgy Nikita Khruschev. In January Derek Bentley had been hanged at Wandsworth Jail and later in the year John Christie would go the same way as more bodies were dug up in the garden of Ten Rillington Place. In February hurricanes and high tides ripped through the east coast killing 280 people, 125 of them on Canvey Island alone.
Such grizzly tidings would shout out at you from the headlines of the Daily Sketch or loom darkly in the “backs to the wall boys” voice of Bob Danvers Walker in the newsreels which were a central part of any visit to the cinema. Imagine then the relief when those clipped tones loosened up into the jollier mode Bob used for sporting items. A young-faced Irish trainer with a big hat called Vincent O’Brien had trained Early Mist to be the first of three consecutive Grand National winners. We already knew about him because in March he had won the Cheltenham Gold Cup for the fourth time in six years with Knock Hard. In May, Stanley Mathews at last won the Cup Final when Blackpool beat Bolton 4-3. We knew all about him because in football terms he was at least as old and revered as Gordon Richards. We also knew about Rocky Marciano. On May 15th he had knocked out Jersey Joe Walcott in the first round at Madison Square Garden. That “Rocky” was the real thing.
All those images, whether in the newspaper or on the cockerel crowing Pathe News, were in black and white and often blurred or flickering into the bargain. The promise of racing in general and most especially on that sun-spangled Derby Day was that it brought colour with it. Each spring my dad used to get a glossy magazine called The British Thoroughbred with pictures and pen-portraits of the leading classic candidates. This year the front cover featured Aureole with jockey Harry Carr wearing the purple and scarlet silks and black cap with the golden tassel that made up the royal livery. On Derby Day it would be for real too.
The royal horses, like the Royal family, were part of the public consciousness back then. In 1942 the colt Big Game and the filly Sun Chariot had won four of the five classics, all of them run at Newmarket’s July Course as Epsom was a troop depot and Newmarket’s Rowley Mile a flying base. No one except Arab specialists in the Trucial States of what was called The Persian Gulf had ever heard of the a family called the Maktoums, but the Aga Khan’s chocolate and gold hooped colours had been triumphant in the Derby three times in the 1930s and Tulyar had won for him in 1952 beating a super gifted sixteen year old called Lester Piggott. On Pinza, Gordon Richards would be wearing the peacock blue and gold hoops of Sir Victor Sassoon. At home I had all these colours on little tin horses and jockeys which used to race across the kitchen floor.
Aureole was born to flaunt this biggest stage even if his temperament was not always a match for it. He was the flashiest of chestnuts with a long white blaze down his face and a bit of white in his eye. In Julian Muscat’s excellent “Her Majesty’s Pleasure” there is a photo of him out at exercise with a tight standing martingale to keep his head in check, something almost as rare nowadays with a high mettled thoroughbred as the regulation flat cap and Newmarket tailored jodphurs which were his stable lad’s kit. By all reports the Derby Day preliminaries were too much for Aureole at Epsom and by the end of the pre-race parade, great white flecks of sweat had added to his markings.
But up at Tattenham Corner we didn’t know this. We just hung about waiting for our glimpse of the Queen. Early on there had been trips inside to get a toffee apple, have a go at the coconut shy and watch addictively as two sharps played “Spot The Lady.” But nobody dared losing their place. Course commentaries did not exist, nobody even had a crystal set radio. Nobody knew anything except that the Queen would soon come. There wasn’t anything you could do about it so you had to make the best of things. After all we were lucky to be here at all. Everyone here, me included, could remember the sound of sirens, the drone of bombers, and the tramp of marching feet. The young Queen was in every sense a symbol of our salvation.
And here she was now. You knew it by the sound of cheering and the winnowing wind of fluttering flags beside the Royal Daimler. There was a flag on the front of it too, with lots of purple and gold like the royal colours themselves. We couldn’t really see much but there she was with a smile and a wave and a young, fair-haired Prince Phillip beside her. Nobody had good cameras let alone a video, you just stored images up in the retina and spliced them into what you saw on the Pathe News. We had seen the Queen swing on to the course and up the Epsom straight on Derby Day. Now all we needed was for Aureole to do his turn too.
But we knew it would not be easy. There were 27 runners and wily old Charlie Smirke was on the Aga Khan’s Shikampour as he had been on the same owner’s Tulyar when he had beaten 32 others the year before. We knew we would never see them in the preliminaries so had to let our imagination do the work and get excited when the earlier races came spinning past our eyes. We knew Aureole was talented but could he cope with Pinza’s massive, almost cart-horse heavy power. We knew Harry Carr longed to win the Derby but the memory still burned of my Dad shouting at the wood and raffia radio as he had swept Prince Simon clear in 1950 only to be outsmarted by Peter O’Sullevan’s great friend Rae Johnstone “Le Crocodil.” Above all we were aware that the fates that had decreed Edmund Hilary and Sherpa Tensing’s conquest of Mount Everest might also have decided that this should be Gordon’s year.
My dad had taken me on the train to see him at Brighton races. In the paddock he was very obviously both the smallest and the most important man. In the race he rode short and upright with a loose rein and a shooing arm. On the way back the station Tannoy said “passengers are advised not to play cards with strangers.” I could not wait.
But we were waiting now. A huge buzz of speculation as specks could be seen gathering down below across the fun-fares and the gypsy caravans at the Derby start. We could see they were off but nothing more. It would be minutes and then seconds before they were upon us and when they came it would be in one brief, whirling harlequinade of galloping hooves, streaming colours, shouting jockeys and away off towards the roar of the grandstand.
Here they came. Charlie Smirke in those Aga Khan colours was in front. But Gordon was cruising outside him on Pinza. He was going to win yet the most vivid image was of Aureole coming round the outside in strong but obviously hopeless pursuit. All in the same blur you could see his white noseband, the long flash on his face, the gold tassel on Harry Carr’s cap, the great bite of his stride. It was there and it was gone and yet, even then, we knew it was a memory that would never fade. If you have the chance of giving your son or grandson an image this Jubilee, don’t let the treasure slip.