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Nick Luck, presenter of Channel 4 Racing, talks about one of the crown jewels in the British sporting calendar, the Derby, ahead of its transmission live on Channel 4 on Saturday June 1st.
The Investec Derby is coming up on June 1st. What makes it such a unique and special event?
I think, in addition to it being a fabulous day out, in terms of the colour and the charisma of the occasion, it still retains its significance as the race that makes future generations.
It’s one of the best attended sporting events in the whole country, isn’t it?
It’s Britain’s single biggest sporting day out – there are over 100,000 people there watching it, if you include the people on the hill. And it’s that hill experience that gives it its unique colour. You’ve got the pomp and ceremony of what’s going on in the grandstand, with the arrival of the Queen and so forth – and she never misses the Derby – and then the colour of the hill, encompassing people from all walks of life. That’s what gives it that unique atmosphere.
Does the fact that it’s the richest race in the British calendar also add to its prestige?
I think it needs to be, in order for its status to remain high. I think that status was threatened for a period towards the late 90s, when the race slightly lost its identity. I think it needs to have that significant purse money. Still, on the whole, British prize money at the top level doesn’t really compete very favourably with a lot of other countries in the world, but the Derby needs to stand out. It’s an important national occasion, it’s hugely significant to the sport. It needs that money, but I wouldn’t say it’s popular because of it.
It’s also a race with a very international following. It’s watched all over the world, isn’t it?
Yes, it is. It’s one of only two absolutely iconic races in Britain – the other’s the Grand National. They’re the two single most important days in the calendar. A lot of the festivals are great, but in terms of a single day and a single race, they are races that bind a significant part of the nation. If you look at the importance that Ballydoyle and Coolmore place on the Derby, it tells you all you need to know about the prestige of the race. The most influential stallion station in the world attaches more importance to the Derby than any other. This massively gives lie to the idea that nobody wants to breed a Derby winner, and that nobody wants to use a Derby winner as a stallion. This idea that all people want to do is breed fast horses, precocious horses, or milers, is not true of the biggest and most prestigious stallion farms. And nor is it reflected in which yearlings make the highest prices at the annual sales. The highest-priced yearlings will always be horses with middle-distance pedigree.
What are your own favourite Derby memories from over the years?
In my lifetime, the two that I’ve enjoyed the most have been two horses who both won the 2000 Guineas and then won the Derby – Nashwan and See The Stars. Nashwan for a number of reasons, first because it’s the first Derby that I can really remember that had a significant impact on me – I was probably 11-years-old. It was the first time I’d ever been aware of that build-up, which is unique to the Derby, which is ‘Will the horse that appears to have the most ability be able to stretch out his speed to the full Derby distance of a mile and a half?’ Which is always one of the most intriguing questions, and will be the question on everybody’s lips this year about Dawn Approach. We know he's the horse who’s got the most proven ability in the race, but can he stretch that ability over a mile and a half? Very few of these runners in the Derby have run that distance before. So I remember that vividly. And the story was a fantastic human interest story as well, because Major Dick Hern, who trained Nashwan, had been ejected from the Queen’s racing stables at West Ilsley, and had been invited to train at Sheikh Hamdan’s Kingwood House Stables in Lambourn. And the added irony was the horse himself was out of mare that her majesty the Queen had sold to Sheikh Hamdan because Her Majesty’s bloodstock advisers had been unable to get her in foal. Willie Carson rode the winner, and the horse was a class act. Who went on to prove it by winning the Eclipse in spectacular fashion after that.
And why See The Stars?
Just because, as a physical specimen, he was just about perfection, and embodied everything that a middle distance equine athlete should be – speed, class, stamina, and a fine pedigree.
It’s been a big year for Channel 4 Racing. How do you feel the coverage has gone so far?
It’s been a thoroughly enjoyable production to work on so far. I think we’ve really begun to find our stride in recent weeks – since the weather has thrown us a bone. Only six of the first 13 scheduled afternoon programmes were able to go out as billed because of the weather, which is a pretty rough trot by anybody’s standards. But the spirit within the team was really impressive, and it’s an incredibly dedicated and committed group of people working on the programme. There’s no doubt that his track record tells you that [Executive Producer] Carl Hicks is one of the best sports producer’s in the country. I think I can speak for everyone when I say we all enjoy working for him enormously. We’ve also got a lot of people with enormous experience of doing major events for racing, and getting the best storylines for those events. That’s why I think our Cheltenham Festival and Aintree coverage was pretty well-received. That’s not to say that everything we’ve put out has been perfect – there’s room for improvement – but I’m as confident as I can be that the coverage will get better – because there’s a will to succeed, a will to develop, a will to modernise without resorting to gimmickry. And there’s a real passion for the sport that underpins everything that all of us do. I’m hugely optimistic, and it’s been a great experience so far.
How will Channel 4 do the Derby differently from when it was on the BBC?
Others can explain better than I can about the technical innovations, the camera positions and things like that. My own observation from Aintree was that there was a deal of innovation shown in how the races were covered – I think you got lots closer to the action, I thought the artistry of the races was quite striking. And hopefully that’s the sort of thing we can bring to Epsom. On an editorial level, I thought the striking thing about Cheltenham and Aintree was the amount of access that we got behind the scenes. We would take the horses all the way from the stables right through to the point where they’d won the race and then were dope-tested. We never left their side, we tracked the story of the horse all the way through the day. That access has been a key feature of the festival coverage so far. And that involves a lot of co-operation with the authorities and so forth, which I don’t think was necessarily there before. I think getting closer to the participants is the key. I do think this production team is putting more energy and pace into these shows. With racing, you’re getting a relatively small amount of live sporting action per half hour, so I always think that it’s important to keep the energy level up in between times, rather than letting it drift.
The meeting isn’t just about the Derby, is it? There’s plenty more to look out for.
The Coronation Cup is retaining its place on Saturday now – it always used to be run on Friday. So you’ve got your best race over the Derby distance for older horses run on the same day, which does massively enhance the Saturday programme. And obviously the other classic, The Oaks, run on Friday, Ladies’ Day, a terrific day’s racing in its own right. Hopefully that’s a day we can grow, while pointing everything towards the Derby. Concertinaing the event into two days, which has been done in the last decade-and-a-half, since it stopped becoming a four or five day meeting, has definitely been a move for the better. There’s very few people now who would say that you can realistically run the Derby on a Wednesday and still get that race that stops the nation status that it had back in the 1960s. It’s an unrealistic aspiration for a Wednesday now. However, I do wonder whether the Derby could be run in primetime. That is something we could definitely think about.
It’s the ideal race for it. In terms of light, you’re talking about it approaching the longest day of the year. The track is still relatively fresh – it’s only had a day’s racing on it. You’re guaranteed to get a much bigger TV audience. It’s worked for other events – it’s worked in Ireland, it’s worked for the Breeders’ Cup Classic. It would be great for the sponsors, great for the profile of the sport. You could have the whole family sitting down to watch it at 6pm, doing a sweepstake together.
When you’re preparing for the race, will you do anything differently?
Not massively differently. The advantage of these big days is you’ve been preparing for them on the job. Because I’ve been covering Chester, York, Lingfield and all the Derby and Oaks trials therein, you’re pretty familiar with the participants by the time you get there.
Do you get nervous before the big occasions like this?
I think you get a bit more pumped up for the big days, definitely, Nervous? Not necessarily, but you definitely need to have your wits about you a bit more and concentrate a bit harder. So the adrenaline flows. And the feeling of satisfaction when you’ve done a big day like this, and done it okay, is great.
Do you have any tips for the race?
One of the reasons it’s become quite difficult to sell the race is that the exact nature of what’s going to run has become quite hard to glean until quite close to the event. I think the European challenge to Dawn Approach is the most interesting – Okavango and Chopin, both of whom have very stout pedigrees. They’re probably streetwise enough to handle the track as well, for two very good trainers. I change my mind every day as to whether I think Dawn Approach’s ability will get him all the way there, irrespective of his stamina.