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18 May 2023

John Sandys on the history and impact of The Derby Walk

The annual Derby Walk is now in it’s 15th year of raising money for valuable causes via the historic walk from London to the Epsom Track. Held this Sunday, we spoke to the founder of the walk John Sandys about his inspiration behind the idea, and what it means to local communities.

The Exodus

My first Derby was Nijinsky in 1970 and I haven’t missed one since. My interest in the social history of the race began when as a child I noticed a lot more traffic on the road from Morden to Epsom around the first Wednesday in June. Many open top buses would pass by my house around this time which just added to the attraction.

A good few years later I was thumbing through a new purchase, a book by Alistair Burnett about the social history of The Derby. I came across a picture called ‘The Exodus’. It depicted the rush to leave London on early Derby Day morning. The route was from Elephant & Castle, through Clapham, Balham, Colliers Wood, Morden and onto Epsom with landmarks identified. Having already an interest in this a very good friend (Pat Larkin) and I thought it might be fun to try it. We added Knightsbridge to Elephant & Castle as it added picturesque London plus the old Tattersalls (huge in both horse sales and gambling) was only stone’s throw from Tattersalls Tavern.

After the first Derby Walk (May 4th, the same date as the first Derby) in 2009 we were pretty much hooked. Only three walked but two of those were ex Epsom Downs Racecourse MD’s and they raised a huge amount of money!

We worked out that although it was a racing-oriented charity we could encourage people to walk for any charity or cause that was close to them. They could raise funds for whoever and for an admin fee we’d foot the bill. The admin fee would then be donated to a charity of our choice. For the last four years it has been Epsom Riding for the Disabled.

14 years, and a pandemic later we’re still going (although for how much longer I don’t know). However, it’s quite a bit of work, particularly in the current climate but it’s a huge amount of fun and Epsom Downs Racecourse are an immense help. The fact that we finish the walk having a barbecue reception overlooking the iconic Derby winners circle, allowing walkers to sample the atmosphere of this unique location has I’m sure resulted in many people returning for a full race day experience.

An interest in racing fuelled by curiosity

I have absolutely no racing background. As mentioned, my interest was fuelled by curiosity. I grew to love and respect horses and the people that look after them. Epsom Riding for the Disabled do a tremendous amount for both individuals and the community. Open days offer a similar opportunity, allowing the public to see these beautiful creatures in their normal habitat. To get up close and see how well they’re looked after. To see how happy they are. The community is racing’s future in my opinion.

We try so hard to engage not with just our local communities but throughout the walk route and further. We’ve had groups from all over the world take part. Hopefully, people also see the charities, both equine and human, that are supported by participants.

Family and community at the top of the list

I think racing works really well within the community.  I often see schools visiting the Racecourse, which is lovely to see.

The family evening last Derby Festival eve was a perfect example of how racing and the community can gel. I brought four grandkids with me and all of them had a wonderful evening (as did the parents). Plus, the prices were reasonable and the food good quality. There should be more of this. I see that Epsom have been promoting The Family enclosure on The Hill which affords a great opportunity to enjoy the spectacle in a safe location at a reasonable price. Bearing in mind I remember the squeeze on The Hill when Mill Reef won The Derby in 1971 this is a huge step forward.

A shop window into racing’s social history

I personally feel The Derby is Racing’s shop window. There maybe races around the world with more prize money, or that last longer, with more established stars etc. However, none have either the equine or social history that The Derby has. As a shop window we’ve only a short time to promote the event and, in my opinion, more should be done.

I feel a lot of what I said before is relevant about this topic. A reasonably priced, safe environment for everyone. More should be promoted about the horses. How many other sports have a direct link from 200 years ago to now. If Bobby Moore’s son and then Grandson captained England it would be mad. Yet, Mill Reef won The Derby in 1971. His son Shirley Heights win in 1978 and his Grandson Slip Anchor won The Derby in 1985.

 I’ve always considered that people need to care. See the affinity/love that the stable staff have with/for the horses. Witness the excitement an owner feels when they see their horse not just on the racecourse but also on the gallops when there’s still hope but also see how that same owner still loves their horse after a defeat. See what makes jockeys and trainers tick. It all however comes back to the most beautiful of creatures. The Horse. And we’ve got hundreds of years of equine history of them.

Find out more about the Derby Walk and how you can take part here

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