Bill Bryson in the Sunday Correspondent

THE SPORT OF GIPSIES AND KINGS

The Derby is a little like your first experience of sex - hectic, strenuous, memorably pleasant and over before you know it. If you have never been to the races before, it comes as something of a shock to realise that a day at the track means long periods of standing around in a slow but soaking rain interspersed with very occasional two-minute bursts of activity.

But that doesn't altogether matter because - and here's the second big surprise - you can't see a thing anyway. In my simple way I had thought that all races were essentially a matter of  sending some animals around an oval track until they returned to the starting point. But not so at Epsom, where the course is immense and irregular. There the horses set off miles away across the downs, gallop off over the horizon somewhere in the neighbourhood of Dorking, reappear briefly on a distant slope and then disappear again.

It's only over the last couple of hundred yards that you have any hope at all of seeing anything that you could recognise as a horse. Even then, the peculiar geography of the grandstand terrace and a sudden enthusiasm for jumping up and down on the part of the spectators means that you are lucky to get more than a passing glimpse of the top of some jockeys' heads as they sweep across the finishing line.

And so the day goes.

Fortunately racing is only a small part of Derby Day. There is also the gambling and drinking, the vast funfair, the gipsies with their baskets of heather, the fortune-tellers, the wandering crowds, the noise, the tumult, the sense of being part of one of the great rituals of summer. It is impossible not to be captivated by it all.

My preconceptions about the occasion were based almost entirely on a 19th-century painting by, I think, W. P. Frith. It portrayed, as I recall, crowds of beery proles happily mingling with fire -eaters, jugglers and flower sellers while their social superiors stood in elegant clusters looking over the horses for the next race. It is a quintessentially English scene of masters and servants having a happy day in the country simultaneously if not together.

Things aren't quite so picturesque now. These days the downs on Derby Day resemble nothing so much as a refugee camp, with tents and caravans and endless crowds of people sprawled boozily across the undulating landscape. Cars dog every road and the rubbish skips are overflowing by midday. But Frith would instantly recognise the air of cheerful escape, that same beguiling sense of occasion, that hum of excitement that accompanies any great sporting event.

One of the first things to strike you about the Derby is that there are no normal, average people there - the sort of people you see pottering about with hedge trimmers on Sunday mornings or sitting in lay-bys drinking cups of tea. Everyone looks like either an aristocrat or one of the Krays. The only exception to this are the bookies, most of whom look not only normal but decidedly bored, as if they would far rather be sitting in a lay-by somewhere.

In their top hats and tails, the toffs look splendid and yet faintly insufferable. Their whole bearing seems to say: 'I'm rich and important and look at what an interesting thing my barber can dowith the back of my hair.' I have never understood this compulsion on the part of the British upper-classes to wear silly clothes whenever the occasion permits. You would think it would be the other way round, that it would be the servants who would be forced to wear the straw boaters and hideous jackets at Henley and the ushers who would be compelled to dress up like funeral home directors at Epsom and Ascot. But no, these are perks reserved for the rich and well-bred.

Outside the grandstand the world was full of East End jack-the-lads with their earrings and cans of lager. The toffs came and went among them, but there was no sense of animosity, even of the bantering kind, which I found surprising, even a little disappointing. It is difficult to see such a ridiculously pompous piece of headgear and not want to go up and knock it off, but no one did and everywhere there was this cheerful, and decidedly endearing, air of good will.

I don't think I have ever been amongst such good-natured people. Everybody - the police, the touts, the course officials - seemed to be having a wonderful day, the only squabbling I saw was between two wobbly Bertie Wooster types who collided outside the members' enclosure and had words, but even that, alas, came to nothing.

With so much time to kill between races I wandered around. I looked in at the Ever Ready Pavilion, where I had been promised that I would be able to rub shoulders with the likes of Roger Moore and Lady Rothermere. (This is of course why I accepted the assignment.) I showed my press pass at the door and was given a large red armband to wear at all times inside the pavilion, presumably so that everyone would realise that I was a grubby little hack and not someone important. I put it in my pocket and was interested to note that Nigel Dempster wasn't wearing his either. I bet he wasn't even asked.

Afterwards, I wandered over to the funfair and had a doughnut and the sort of hot dog that leaves you wondering if this could be the last thing you eat before going on a life-support machine.

Nothing much was happening at the funfair, on account of the weather, but there was a whole encampment of gipsy fortune-tellers, all of them evidently related - Gipsy Rose Lee and Gipsy

Rosa Lee and Gipsy Rose Marie Lee and Gipsy Marie Rose Lee and Gipsy Priscilla Lee ('The Gipsy Who Has Bean On BBC TV') and at least three dozen others. They all displayed photographs of themselves standing besides startled -looking members of the Coronation Street cast.

The Derby began late and in increasingly atrocious weather. I keep calling it the Derby, but of course it isn't that any more. It's the Ever Ready Derby. Nobody ever seems to remark on what a depressingly cheapening effect this sponsorship business has on national institutions. Where will it end - the Texas Home Care Queen Mother, the Campari House of Parliament, the Nissan Bluebird United Kingdom? In any case, I went down to the parade ring to watch the jockeys mount up (they really are astonishingly tiny) and then stayed on to watch from a viewing platform on the roof of a building overlooking the paddock.

I couldn't see a thing but an occasional far off clump of movement, I couldn't hear the track commentator because of all the shouting, I was soaked to the skin and very cold, and I hadn't laid a bet (I was about to until I saw a bookie put a wad of money the size of a Cornish pastie in his pocket and I thought: these men are licensed thieves), but I still found myself jumping up and down and shouting, 'Come on, Farmer Jock! Come on, Farmer Jock!.'

It was only much later that I discovered I had been looking at the wrong page in the programme and that Farmer Jock was in another race. I will do better next year.

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