Derby day: The Jockey Club’s Phil White on the historic horse race

Ahead of the 238th running of the Derby, Phil White, the Jockey Club's London regional director, discusses the races new sponsorship agreements with Investec and Poundland.

Derby day: The Jockey Club’s Phil White on the historic horse race

Victory in British horse racing’s premier classic, the Derby, lifts a trainer, a horse or a jockey into the annals of the sport's long history.

Horse racing blue bloods Sir Henry Cecil, Shergar, Aiden O'Brien, Sea the Stars, Lester Piggott, Nijinsky, Galileo and Frankie Dettori - to name but a few - have all tasted success in the Group One race, which has been run at Surrey’s Epsom Downs since 1780 and named for Edward Smith-Stanley, the 12th Earl of Derby. 

Such a list may fall from the tongue like a veritable who’s who of British horse racing but it is unquestionable their respective Derby wins that put them on a wider sporting map and, of course, catapulted them to the top table of the ‘Sport of Kings’.   

There are horse racing classics and then there is the Derby. 

Although there are a host of equine and human stars yearning to be added to the one mile and four furlong race's almighty roll of honour it is South African financial provider Investec - which has signed a five-year extension to take its title sponsorship of the race through to 2026 - that is becoming ever more synonymous with the event. 

Alongside Investec's long-term financial commitment in May, race organiser the Jockey Club announced a ground-breaking UK£1 million (US$1.3 million) agreement with discount supermarket Poundland to sponsor the famous hill area of the Epsom Downs for the first time.    

Furthermore, the 2017 Derby will be the richest race ever staged in the UK after two colts - the Mark Johnson-trained Permian and John Gosden’s Khalidi - were added as late entries at a cost of UK£85,000 apiece. The ultimate prize pot will stand, therefore, at UK£1.625 million (US$2.1 million) for the 3rd June race.

Phil White, the Jockey Club's London regional director of Epsom Downs, Kempton Park and Sandown Park racecourses, discusses the new sponsorship agreements, what he sees for the future of the event and what returning host broadcaster ITV will add to the 238th running of the horse race.   

Firstly, what can you say about the recent five-year extension with Investec? Has the renewal seen any additional commercial activation planned with the bank?

We are absolutely delighted that Investec has extended its deal with the race. They started sponsoring the Derby Festival in 2009 and the extension takes us to 2026. It is fantastic for the event and really good news for British racing; what it does is give us the chance to build long-term plans to continue to grow the event. 

There are a number of areas that we are looking to build on, of course. This year is a record prize money year for the Derby itself - a UK£1.625 million (US$2.1 million) fund for the race - and as part of the Jockey Club we will continue to invest in that back in the forthcoming years. 

With regards to the sponsorships with Investec and Poundland on the hill, we will be looking to build an experience for the customers that will continue to attract families and racegoers alike.  

The Derby is such a unique event and we are keen to build upon that. That is the main objective from our point of view for the forthcoming years.             

What was the thinking behind the deal with Steinhoff International to rename the hill area of Epsom Downs Racecourse Poundland? 

We are really keen that the hill, which is one of the most unique attractions of The Derby and interest’s people from all walks of life, is reinvigorated. It is such an important part of the whole event: it is the people’s race, so we wanted to attract a sponsor that would work with us to build on it.

Poundland is a great partner - we have met them a couple of time leading into this event - and they have got exactly the same intentions as we have. We want to attract more people by creating fun and exciting activities around the sponsorship. They [Poundland] have an enclosure on the hill this year that will include educational activities for kids to help them understand what the Derby is and explain the history of the race. 

It is all about attracting families and new people to come and experience the wonderful sport. The hill is an area that a lot of people will have their first ever experience of horse racing, let alone The Derby, so I think that it is important for future generations that we make sure that it is preserved.   

We were really pleased to have attracted Poundland in as a new partner to horse racing. They are part of Steinhoff International, a high street brand that has 500 nationwide stores and around 7 million customers per week. 

Their addition has to be great for taking racing to parts of the country that it may not usually reach. This is really good for the sport’s future. We are really pleased about this.

Is this a one-off for Epsom or might the individual sponsorship of enclosures become a trend across Jockey Club racecourses?

I think that the Derby itself is unique and the hill is definitely unique in British racing, so I wouldn’t see it particularly becoming a trend. I just think that it is absolutely appropriate for the Derby that it has a sponsor like this. If we want to build longer-term plans then having a partner to do that is the first step in the right direction. 

We obviously won’t rule out going down other avenues if there is a commercial reason to do it, if there are advantages to the partners and The Jockey Club. In those cases we would certainly consider that but as it stands, at the moment, it is a bit of a one-off.      

What do you think returning host broadcaster ITV - who will show the race live for the first time in 29 years - will add for this year’s race? And what is the global coverage looking like for 2017?  

I have been really impressed with how ITV have handled the big events so far this year [the Cheltenham Festival, the Grand National and Newmarket’s Guineas meeting]. They are very creative, especially when looking at new opportunities to improve the coverage. They are a great partner to work with. 

So far, ITV has been great. 

In addition to ITV, the Derby has obviously got wide a global TV audience. NBC has taken The Derby for the first time this year in America - they are doing a live 90-minute show from Epsom. The race truly has a global reach: it goes to Poland, Russia, the Netherlands, and the British Forces have got it now. It is available in 16 time zones where we have 30,000 British troops stationed around the world.       

With the current fashion in breeding leaning to producing horses suitable for shorter forms of racing, where do you think that the Derby - a middle-distance race - currently ranks in global racing? Is it still the sport's blue-riband race? 

I believe so. The Derby has been run at Epsom since 1780; it is the original Derby and it is the race that all other Derbys take their names from. We are extremely proud of that.

From a prize money point of view it is still the most valuable horse race in the UK. From a three-year-old point of view it is the most valuable race in Europe, so it still has an absolute resonance. Our strategy is very much to maintain that position and we continue to see it that way.  

With invitational races such as the Pegasus World Cup and Australia’s Everest turf sprint generating prize money - a world-record US$16 million and US$12 million respectively - that dwarfs the Derby’s UK£1.625 million prize pot, how will the historic race compete with them financially? Are there any plans to change the format - perhaps making the contest a shareholders’ race - or the sponsorship model?     

At this stage there aren't any immediate plans to do so but as we make future plans I think we will, of course, look at all options. But no, I don't think that at this stage it is part of the thinking.

The key thing about the Derby is that it is this year’s race is its 238th running. There is so much history and heritage around it - for me this is the standout thing about the race - so we won't be looking to make significant changes on that front. 

The 1,000 Guineas - the second British classic of the season, which is run at Newmarket and open to three-year-old fillies - is successfully run on the Sunday after the opening classic, the 2,000 Guineas, which is open to colts and fillies. Would Epsom ever think about moving its filly classic, the Oakes, to the Sunday to attract a new, larger audience?

Like with all of these things you can never rule anything out. However, I don't think at this stage it is something that we have really considered. 

We have this year moved The Coronation Cup [the Group One race ridden over the same distance as The Derby that is open to horses of the age of four and above] from the Saturday on to the Friday to strengthen the quality of racing on the Friday, which is obviously a very good card as it stands. 

We feel that the Derby stands alone on the Saturday and that seems to work for us.        

  

You said earlier that you see the Derby as a 'people’s race'. What have you done to make the Derby more attractive to the wider public? 

I certainly think that the activation on the hill will help. We have doubled the size of our hillside enclosure, which is a paid-for enclosure with loads of family entertainment. It is great for groups because of the improved facilities. There will also be a car rally this year. 

As I mentioned earlier, Poundland will have their own enclosure that will have a lot of the activities available for children. Obviously we will continue to have the funfair, the markets and the traditional activities on the hill. 

Any changes or improvements that we do to the hill will have to embody the spirit of the area: it has always been a kind of carnival-like atmosphere. I think that the fans that make the trip to the 2017 Derby will see more activity than ever before.     

What in your opinion makes the Derby such a unique sporting event? 

It is a once in a lifetime chance for a three-year-old thoroughbred. They are entered as a yearling that has never been raced and it comes very early in their colt season. They will only have had a race or two in the lead-up to the race so are still very green.  

The Derby course itself is absolutely unique and it is the ultimate challenge: it essentially goes to the top of Nelson's Column from the start to the top corner, and then you go past the famous Tattenham corner. It is the undulating course that makes it the ultimate challenge for the riders and the thoroughbreds. The finest horse normally wins. 

If you own a Derby-winning horse, the value of that horse - in terms of fees that it can achieve at stud - you are looking at UK£30 million (US$38.5 million) to UK£40 million (US$51.5 million).

It is a really open race this year and I honestly couldn't tell you who will win - but I can guarantee that it will be spectacular.