EPSOM DOWNS, England — The Derby at Epsom Downs is one of the classics of British horse racing, but for just the third time in Queen Elizabeth II’s 70-year reign she missed the running.
This may be the new normal for the 96-year-old monarch.
The queen is not feeling well. She is feeling “some discomfort.” The palace said she would watch the races on television from her apartments in Windsor Castle, as she watched the service of thanksgiving from St. Paul’s Cathedral on Friday, part of her Platinum Jubilee, a joyous four-day celebration that began Thursday with all the pomp the British could muster, plus appearances by the elusive Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, and will conclude with a Platinum Jubilee Pageant on Sunday.
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The Derby Stakes was first run in 1780, and named for the Earl of Derby. The Kentucky Derby and all the other Derbys around the world take their name from the Earl.
The royal box in the Queen’s Stand was strung with a garland of purple flowers, the queen’s racing colors. The monarch’s daughter, Princess Anne, a former Olympic equestrian, was there to represent the queen, but for most of the afternoon the balcony at Epsom Downs looked empty.
No Princes Charles, William or Harry. No Kate. No. Meghan. The queen’s horses, in the end, did not compete, though some of her retired racers joined as part of a parade in her honor.
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The queen is a fanatical horserace owner, horse breeder, horse shower, horse rider. She’s been around horses her entire life. Her parents gifted her a pony named Peggy when she was four. She was riding at age six.
Her biographers have written that the queen reads the “Racing Post” newspaper at breakfast, while munching on her bowl of Special K.
Even as her health began to slip a notch, presenting her with mobility challenges, the queen rode horses and ponies — well into her 90s.
The Derby is not quite the Royal Ascot, the queen’s other favourite, which is more elevated. More “members only.” More posh.
The Derby feels a bit more democratic.
It’s not what you think it is, if you watch it on television or see the photographs.
There were some minor royals and B-level English celebrities and gents in morning coats and top hats and ladies wearing fascinators, aplenty.
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But mostly kept out of the broadcaster’s eye are stalls selling beer and sausage — and the rows and rows of betting machines. The Derby boasts the biggest purse in British racing.
There’s a 30-minute walk — past suburban cul-de-sacs and a golf course — to the track 45 minutes ride west of London.
Making their way to cheap seats on the lawn — at The Hill — were women in denim short shorts with tattoos and young men in tight suits carrying plastic bags filled with cans of beer, shouting and already a little bit unsteady.
There is a parking lot for helicopters, for the swells.
And there was a line of buses for the folk.
It is a bit fancy, but fancy with a plastic cup. Fancy with a slice of pizza.
Outside the Queen’s Stand, a pensioner with a Bic pen was jotting notes and numbers onto the folded pages of a betting form.
“The queen has been a gift to horse racing that is true,” said Patrick Johnston, an equine enthusiast. “But she is old, and well…time is time, isn’t it?” He shrugged.
The crowd did not come out to see the queen. They had already heard she was taking a scratch on this one, so they weren’t disappointed.
Sophie Brown and Paul Burke stood by the rail a few inches from the running horses.
Burke sells top hats and was wearing one of Parisian silk plush from the 1920s. He said the Derby at Epsom Downs was “all about tradition and a tribute to yesteryear and the queen has been a central figure in all of that.”
Brown said, “It’s a bittersweet feeling. It’s sad that she has to withdraw from the events and things she loves.”
Brown was philosophical. “That’s life.”
In a service of thanksgiving for the queen on Friday, the Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell, used horse-related metaphors to talk about her life, saying “your majesty, we are sorry you are not here with us this morning in person. But we are so glad you are still in the saddle.”
Desert Crown won the main race at the Derby, a mile and a half on the turf, over a course that rises and falls, which requires both stamina and speed.
The winning jockey Richard Kingscote told the racing reporters that Desert Crown showed “a huge amount of class. He jumped great, traveled great, turned in going really well. It was all lovely.”