The Secret Racegoer’s guide to going to Epsom
Epsom, home of the Derby, is something of a Jekyll and Hyde racecourse. For two days in June and on a handful of summer evenings when there is post-race music, it takes on the persona of a busy, vibrant venue.
But on other race days, and despite the grandeur of the modern stands, it can be a bleak and depressing place, particularly if the weather does its worst on this exposed part of the North Downs.
Not surprisingly, it’s on Derby Day that the racecourse is judged, not least on how many people throng to the Surrey track, with the numbers keenly scrutinised by the keep it on Saturday’ or ‘move it back to Wednesday’ advocates; always maintaining their position regardless of the estimates how many artisans were on the centre of the course and how many paid to get in.
And given the Jekyll and Hyde nature of the place, it’s probably best to look at its two different personas when reviewing how best to get there and the facilities provided.
When the police say ‘get there early’, Epsom on Derby Day is when it is best to heed their advice. The roads surrounding the course don’t exactly meet the classification of A, and even B is being polite. An early start and patience are the watchwords
And, although stretched, public transport offers a better option. The tube to Morden, with a bus link, is one possibility but the crowded roads still have to be negotiated.The train is better and you’ve the choice of three stations.
Tattenham Corner, served by plentiful trains, adjoins the course and is ideal if you want to head for the downs, although it’s one of those routes that grinds it way through south London suburbs, and children asking “are we there yet?” are fully entitled to make this enquiry. It’s also a long trek to the stands – probably six to seven furlongs.
Better options if you’re heading for the stands are Epsom Downs, not so many trains and still a hike to the course, and Epsom station in the town, served by the most trains but the furthest from the course. Its saving grace is the bus service that takes you to up to the racecourse, as do the taxis.
Leave it late and you’ll be faced by long queues, so ‘get there early’ is equally applicable when using public transport. Whichever route you choose, the return journey will mean queuing.
On other days, with the exception of the tube/bus option, the choices are the same, but with fewer people and fewer trains. A word of warning, however, a popular band on a music night can overwhelm the buses coming up from Epsom.
Because Epsom’s stands look out over the Downs, race viewing is first-class, particularly on the quiet days. But the terrances become packed on both Oaks and Derby Days, so the “get there early” mantra again applies.
And the paraphernalia associated with more than 100,000 people on the Downs also obscures the view, although the fleet of helicopters accounts for much of the obstruction. Fortunately, Epsom invests in numerous big screens, so whether you are in the stands or out on the Downs, there’s no reason to miss the action.
Epsom boasts two of the country’s most modern stands; with the Queen’s Stand (members) resembling an ocean liner, whilst the more recently constructed Duchess Stand (grandstand) resembling an Amazon distribution centre.
There’s something special about entering the Queen’s Stand with its large entrance lobby and floral-lined marble stairs leading to the concourse area and two sweeping staircases taking you to greater heights.
The Duchess Stand doesn’t have the same majesty. Like a lot of new stands these days, it’s a big, functional room but the space is welcome, albeit that the entrances can become bottlenecks.
Queuing for toilets is also a factor with agitated people saying “are we there yet”.
Perhaps most disappointing aspect of Epsom is the parade ring. It used to be situated a good two-furlongs beyond the winning post, surrounded on two sides by bars and Tote kiosks and on the other side by the stables. It had its own atmosphere on Derby Day; a sort of off-shoot village that was holding its summer fete whilst up the road a riotous carnival was taking place.
Some people never left the parade ring area whilst others scurried down there to catch a glimpse of the Derby runners before heading back to the stands, hoping to arrive in time to see the race with some asking “are we there yet?”
Now, the parade ring is situated between the back of the stands and the adjacent main road. It has a temporary feel about it, as if the builders haven’t finished yet. And viewing is limited.
The winner’s enclosure on the other hand is still the same, small, claustrophobic ring in front of the Queen’s Stand. Overlooked by the Queen’s Stand lawn and balconies, it’s an intimate amphitheatre where the classic winners are enthusiastically greeted by the surrounding audience – both the groundlings and those looking on from above.
Eating and drinking
Epsom is left behind by other south east tracks in terms of choices of food and drink outlets, and the Jekyll and Hyde characters are present in relation to catering.
The Queen’s Stand has three bars, two champagne bars, one serving seafood, and a single small food counter with a limited choice of sandwiches and pastries (and the sandwiches often run out).
All these outlets are overrun on Oaks Day (less so on Derby Day when the morning suite dress-code reduces the numbers) and on quiet days it’s not been unknown for a bar to be closed down midway through proceedings.
For the Derby meeting, a temporary two-storey champagne bar and seafood bar has been built on the Queen’s lawn just beyond the winning post and a bridge links it to the Queen’s Stand. However, for 2019, this is now an exclusive area for those who can afford to upgrade having paid £130 for a Derby Day Queen’s Stand badge.
Fine dining, at unaffordable prices, is also available but the restaurant does not have a view of the course. Also unaffordable is the £6 a pint Epsom now asks for a bee,r lager or Guinness.
The Duchess Stand has a bar, a real ale bar and a couple of food outlets. But on the quiet days, the doors remain firmly locked and food and drink needs to be found elsewhere.
Outside, bars are dotted about, and are joined by the usual range of fast-food vans, which greatly increase in number in early June to form an encampment of calories.
It has its faults, but Epsom on Derby Day cannot be beaten. No other track in the south east conjures up the noise and atmosphere, not even Ascot during the Royal meeting – there’s a “wow” factor which perhaps only Cheltenham can emulate.
The music nights are popular, but given that access to the Downs is free it’s frustrating to see people turning up towards the end of the racing in time to listen to the band; unlikely candidates therefore to make a return visit to witness the sport.
Much better to get there early.
Derby stats http://wp.me/p8e3Dl-23a
Derby runners guide http://wp.me/p8e3Dl-23j
Epsom Dash stats http://wp.me/s8e3Dl-7984
Coronation Cup stats http://wp.me/p8e3Dl-23K
Oaks runners guide http://wp.me/p8e3Dl-22R
Oaks stats http://wp.me/p8e3Dl-23H
Epsom and the Derby: the early years http://wp.me/s8e3Dl-7961
Epsom racecourse guide http://wp.me/s8e3Dl-7935