That duel supplied my personal connection to the race — both El Gran Senor and Secreto were offspring of the incredible Northern Dancer, the Canadian-bred stud who many in this country believe is the nation’s greatest athlete of all time despite his four-legged status. My seatmate in the grandstand had an even closer connection. He was a Yorkshire publican who had taken the day off for his annual “holiday” and journeyed to Epsom for the race. And he had bet £20 on Secreto (I forget whether the odds were 12/1 or 20/1, but they were long). I don’t think I have ever seen a happier racetracker when the photo was posted showing Secreto had won by a short head and he had won hundreds of pounds — I was treated to two pints of bitter, simply for being a seatmate with a “connection” to the sire of “his” winner.
I indulge in that lengthy personal introduction to illustrate the pervasive nature of the Derby that lasts to this day. Okay, not every Brit is a horse-racing fan, but one day a year a very high percentage are. An amazing number make the journey to Epsom Downs and every one of them has a personal “stake” in the outcome.
Given my unforgettable Day at the Derby, is it any wonder that I approached D.J. Taylor’s Derby Day with much anticipation? True, the Derby Day of the title takes place in the mid-1800s, a century-and-a-half before my excursion. While a lot has changed in those years, the horse-racing business has some constants — everyone at Epsom then and now has a stake in the outcome and, for some, that stake is big enough to provoke every possible kind of outrage up to, and including, murder.
While this is his first novel that I have read, Taylor has a well-established reputation. His speciality is Victorian mystery — one of his previous books is actually titled Kept, A Victorian Mystery and the front cover strap on this one proclaims it “A Victorian Mystery”. I’d argue that is somewhat misleading: there is not a lot of mystery to the book, but every one of its 404 pages is loaded with “intrigue” (I know, “A Victorian Intrigue” hardly seems an adequate promotional label).
The author wastes no time in introducing the reader to the intrigue. In the opening pages, two small-time, pub-based bookies, Mulligan and McIvor, are sharing pots of ale in Clipstone Court and developing a betting scheme around the Derby that will be contested a few months down the road. First, we have the hatching of the plot, with Mulligan carefully composing a handbill come-on to attract interest:
‘Here we are then. A widowed lady, relict of a gentleman long esteemed in some of the highest sporting establishments in the land, is in possession of information pertaining to this year’s Derby race, which she will gladly divulge in exchange for the sum of one half-crown, to be remitted to Mrs Faraday, Post Office, Drury Lane, London W. Reads well, don’t it?’
‘I should say it does,’ said Mr McIvor, who had been very impressed by the word ‘pertaining’. ‘But what do we do when folks start sending their money in?’
The hook having been baited, a few paragraphs later we are introduced to the racehorse who is at the centre of Derby Day, “that horse from Lincolnshire”:
Seeing from the look on McIvor’s face that he had never heard of any horse in Lincolnshire, he [Mullligan] went on:
‘Tiberius. Mr Davenant’s horse. The one that ran five furlongs in a minute and five on Newmarket Heath last spring, and that Joey Bailey would have rode in the Ascot New Stakes if he hadn’t broke ‘is collar-bone the week before. Was a feller talking of him no-end in Post and Paddock the other month. I remarked it at the time. Mr Newcome is already offering tens on him, and nobody knowing whether he’s to run or no.’
If Mulligan and McIvor are bottom-feeders when it comes to exploiting the opportunities of the Derby, Mr Happerton occupies the other end of the spectrum. The reader first meets him when he shows up at a lunch where Mrs Venables is entertaining Rebecca Gresham, the daughter of an aging well-connected barrister with a house in Belgravia:
‘Here,’ he said, reaching into a canvas bag that had accompanied him into Mrs Venables’ drawing room. ‘Tell me what you think of this.’
It was a watercolour picture, perhaps eighteen inches square and framed behind glass, of a lithe black horse cropping the grass of what might have been Newmarket Heath.
‘What is it?’
‘That is Tiberius.’ For the first time in their conversation, Mr Happerton became thoroughly animated. ‘Won the Biennial Stakes at Bath only the other day. It was in all the newspapers. Though not the kind of newspapers you read I daresay, Bec— Miss Gresham.’
‘I never saw a copy of Bell’s Life, Mr Happerton.’
‘Eh? No, I don’t suppose you did. Well, you may take it from me, Miss Gresham, that Tiberius is the coming thing. There are men who would pay five thousand to have him running under their name.’
‘And you are one of them, Mr Happerton?’
Indeed he is. Not only that, he is aware that the current owner, Mr Davenant, has debts all over and he has been quietly buying up the notes so that he can force Davenant into bankruptcy and acquire the horse. The problem is, Happerton is running out of capital — marriage to Miss Gresham would provide potential access to her father’s wealth so he could complete his scheme.
Having sketched the top and bottom representatives of the cast of scoundrels looking at the Derby as an opportunity, let me assure you that there are a host more in the novel — jewel thieves, ne’er-do-well hangers-on, overweight jockeys, an honest squire, a confused governess and, yes, murderers — will all be introduced. If Derby Day was a wedding cake, it would be seven or eight layers and I’ve noted only minor features of the top and bottom ones. In fact, if there is a problem with the novel it is that Taylor develops so many sub-plots that the latter part of the book becomes a literary juggling act in keeping them all in the air and eventually bringing them to resolution. Then again, this is a Victorian novel, so that comes with the turf (pun intended).
I thoroughly enjoyed Derby Day. The Booker longlist always seems to have an extended historical novel on it — while this is no Wolf Hall, the 2009 winner, I found it to be a legitimate representative of the genre (and better than Jane Harris’ Gillespie and I, another Victorian novel I rather liked which did not make the longlist). Undoubtedly, my affection for horse-racing novels and personal memories of my wonderful day at Epsom influenced my enjoyment, so keep that in mind if you are contemplating the book.
Derby Day will make my shortlist and I suspect the jury’s as well, although that is more a reflection of the weakness of other books on the longlist than the worth of this one. As much as I enjoyed it, the novel does not deserve to win the Prize — it is more rewarding entertainment than a strong literary novel.