When we returned from our trip to London, people asked me what my favorite part was. We did so many fun, enlightening, and enriching things- I loved every moment of our trip. However, one experience stands out among all of them- the Epsom Derby. As I was describing it to one of my co-workers last week, I said that it was a once in a lifetime experience.
Sometime last year we decided to go to London for my husband’s birthday, and going to the Epsom Derby became the centerpiece for our trip. Held one day before my husband’s birthday on the first Saturday in June, it was the perfect place to start. He and I have both been to the Kentucky Derby several times- not as fancy box attendees, but as workers- workers with pretty glamourous jobs. Those of you reading who know me know what my husband does, and I had the honor and privilege to photograph the Kentucky Derby from First Turn in 2008, 2009, and 2011. Talk about once in a lifetime experiences! And I got to do it three times! So Derby is special to us, and we wanted to go to Epsom and see where it all began. Unlike the Kentucky Derby, you can buy tickets to Epsom pretty easily. We bought two tickets to The Dutchess Stand many months before the trip, just to be sure we’d get good seats.
Epsom is located just south of London, so it is out of reach of the fantastic Tube. We had to take a train. Our first order of business when we arrived in London, once we settled into our flat, was to visit the train station and figure out what train to get on and how to get tickets. It is probably very easy to get a train right before you need to get somewhere, but we were not well versed in the British Rail system and did not know how many people would be taking trains to Epsom on Derby Day. Would they sell out? Probably not, but we got our train tickets a few days in advance too.
We boarded the train and I was excited to see other Derby fans on the train with us, not only because that was a sure indicator that we were on the right train, but it made for great people watching. There was a group of folks a few seats in front of us who were obviously going to the infield. They had coolers, libations, the whole nine yards. It was many hours before the races, but they were passing around bottles of ale to each other on the train. So, yes, infielders at the Epsom Derby are just like the ones at the Kentucky Derby- drink early, drink often, and oh my goodness what kind of shape are they going to be in by the end of the day? I liked listening to their banter. The train made many stops, and as we got closer to Epsom, more and more folks heading there got on board.
Many of the people on the train were dressed all fancy like us. It’s fantastic- the men in the Queen’s Stand, which is the fanciest part of the grandstand, are required to wear top hat and tails! We were right next to the Queen’s Stand, in the Dutchess Stand, which requires men to wear jacket and tie, and women are required to wear a “smart frock” and encouraged to wear a hat or fascinator. We were not on the train with anyone in top hat and tails, as I am sure they arrive to the racecourse by more posh means. The train was wonderful, though. We got off the train at Tattenham Corner, and we trooped down the road toward the grandstand.
Epsom Downs is located in a pastoral area with a lot of green space and wide open sky. The weather was nice- cloudy, but not rainy and mild. After accidentally following a line of people toward the infield, we got on the right pathway and picked up our tickets at the will call and went to find our seats. Our seats were awesome- just before the finish line, and up high enough so that we could see the whole racecourse. We had a bird’s eye view of everything, and much of the fun of the day was watching everything unfold right in front of us.
As you can see from my bad photo above, the infield is just as packed with people as the infield at Churchill Downs during the Kentucky Derby. The big difference here was that people could bring their vehicles into the infield. There were cars, trucks, and buses parked in there, as well as a fun park- that’s what looks like cranes at the left in the photo. I’m not sure if more, less or about the same amount of people attend the Epsom Derby as do the Kentucky Derby. The course at Epsom is longer, and on the right, it actually gets a little hilly. And it is turf and not dirt like it is here.
Another very interesting thing about Epsom is that most people do not bet at the tote- they bet with the bookmakers. You can’t see them in the photo because the area is too crowded with people, but where all the people are standing, there are bookmakers’ carts. They all have their own tote boards that light up with their odds on the horses. We were just amazed by this, because you haven’t been able to use bookmakers at the track here for a very, very long time. We placed a few bets throughout the course of the day and used the bookmakers. We didn’t cash any tickets, so that was pretty much the same experience as I have betting over here!
At left, there is the tag that you have to wear. There’s a different one for the Queen’s Stand. Guys wear it on their lapel, and I tied mine in a knot and wore it as a bracelet. My losing ticket for the Derby is above it. I bet on Festive Cheer. He did not win. Barry Dennis is the name of the bookmaker, and all tickets say how much money you’ll win if your horse comes in. I did not collect that 105 pounds. Alas.
We were right next to the Queen’s Stand, so I could see lots of men in top hats and tails milling about. When they interviewed the winning owners and trainers of horses, all of them were in top hat and tails. How fancy!
Speaking of the Queen, she attends the Epsom Derby and the Royal Ascot, Britain’s two premier horse races every year. Most of you know she is quite a fan and owns racehorses herself. At some point at the beginning of the races for the day the Queen and her entourage arrived. They were driven to their seats right down the racecourse. I could see the Queen waving to the crowd through the window of her car. That’s probably the closest we’ll ever be to the Queen of England!
Another highlight of the day was our seatmate, an older British gentleman who came to the races by himself. He struck up a conversation and when he heard our American accents, he asked us where we were from and was excited we were from Louisville and knew all about the Kentucky Derby and racing over here. He was a big fan and had been to Epsom many times. He was really quite a wealth of knowledge. We enjoyed spending the day talking to him and watching the races with him immensely. It was neat to hear about British racing from his point of view and to talk about the differences between racing over there and here.
We got hungry for lunch and went to the food stalls to scout out what was available. I was excited that there was a fish and chips stall. I got a paper basket full of delicious fries (chips, in British nomenclature) and fish. I ate fish and chips a lot throughout the trip, but this was the best fish and chips of the trip. It was delicious! I put malt vinegar all over the fish and fries- mmmmm- tasty! I had water with that meal, but we wanted to get some drinks later in the day. My husband was going to get me a small bottle of Piper-Heidsieck, because, hey, why not, but when he found out it cost something crazy like 70 pounds, he got me some brown ale instead. Yikes!
The race card for Epsom did not have as many races on it as the card does at Derby, so the races didn’t get going until around 1:30. There was one other big race that day, but the biggest race on the card was the Derby. We watched all the races from our perch in the grandstand. The weather was fantastic all day, and we watched the races and chatted with our British friend the whole time. It was a great day. It was just as packed as it is at the Kentucky Derby, so we didn’t wander around too much. For the very last race, we went down to the Parade Ring to see the horses- that’s what they call the Paddock over here. Instead of having open stalls, this was a paved ring with some grass in the middle. They paraded the horses around the ring so you could have a look at them. Our British racing fan friend told us he likes to go look at the horses, and he can tell by their look if they are going to be better runners. I can’t really tell what’s what when I look at a horse. I like looking at them because they are pretty.
One other funny story from the day- I got thirsty late in the afternoon and went to a food stall to get a bottle of water. The girl working the stand was wearing hearing aids, and I could tell she was having a hard time understanding me. I kept asking for a bottle of WAH-ter, with my American accent, which did not sound as the British say it- WHOA-ter. We finally understood each other and all was well.
I didn’t take my camera to the Derby. I wasn’t sure what the rules were for taking things like that in, plus I didn’t want to lug it around all day. I didn’t have my phone with me either, because we carried the iphone the flat rental place gave us to use for the trip, so the only photo I got at the race was the one at the beginning of this post. I decided at the beginning of the trip that I wasn’t going to take my camera with me everywhere, because I wanted to really experience what I saw, and not be preoccupied with getting good shots of everything. I probably could have gotten it in- they didn’t search us- but I am glad I didn’t bring it. The memories I have are in my mind and as I recount them here. I posed in my Derby outfit in the photo to the left so that we could show our parents my outfit. You can see my little fascinator. I’m not sure where I’ll ever wear it again- perhaps I’ll save it, just in case I get invited to attend the Kentucky Derby one day, as a box guest. I’m not holding my breath on that one, but you never know!
When the races were over, we got on the train back to London with all the other racegoers. There were quite a throng of us, and we were herded into the ubiquitous British queue to get on the train. On the ride back, I nodded off and took a great train “disco nap.” Riding on trains is so relaxing. I love the sound they make. I wish that were a viable option for travel here.
It was a fantastic day, an unforgettable experience. The whole trip was. I am a big believer in following your dreams. Life is short, and we don’t really know why we are here for sure, and we certainly don’t know how long we are here. It’s not long enough, that much I do know. I am so happy we were able to fulfill one of our dreams by taking this trip. I have a fortune that I saved from a fortune cookie many years ago. It says, “if you can shape it in your mind, you will find it in your life.” A year ago, we first shaped the idea of this trip in our minds, and with hard work and planning, and budgeting, we made it happen. I am so, so glad we did. We will carry the memories we have of this trip throughout our whole lives.