Ten years on, how my trip to Epsom Downs was dashed

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July 6th, 2015

It began with a coin flip at Christmas. The bride and I had differing views about where we should make our first ever excursion to Europe the following summer, so I proposed that the toss of a quarter settle the matter.

As one of the primary goals of this jaunt was to take in a day of racing at a prominent racecourse, I stood to win either way. However, my choice of London, from which we could easily access a number of fine courses, offered more appeal than Rome, with its sole track, Capannelle, uncertain to be open in the oppressive summer heat.

London won.

The next step was to weigh the pros and cons of two competing courses to attend. Do I spare no expense and head to Newmarket for the best British racing had to offer that week, or do I make the cost-conscious decision to take in more ordinary fare at Epsom Downs, where I could walk the hallowed birthplace of the Derby?

Epsom won.

My excitement was such that I purchased two general admission tickets online as soon as they went on sale – six months in advance.

Race day finally arrived. It was overcast with occasional drizzle and light rain – stereotypical English weather. The plan was to precede our rail trip to Surrey with that noted tourist trap, the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace.

"Have you heard the news?" asked the hotel clerk as we made our way through the lobby toward the door that morning. Having not had the telly on that morning, my feeble reply was a reference to the announcement made the previous day that London would host the 2012 Summer Olympics.

With a stern expression, I was quietly corrected. We briefly headed back to our room to assess the situation.

It was July 7, 2005. Four terrorist bombs had just been detonated, three in the London Underground and one on a double-decker bus.

After watching very early news reports, we decided to salvage the day as best we could. With public transport immediately shut down, we were forced to make the brisk trek to the Palace on foot through Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park.

The constant blaring of sirens is the thing I remember most about our stay outside the Palace gates. Needless to say, the guard changing ceremony was canceled.

We spent the next several hours walking around with no phone and no way to get up-to-date information (although at some point I did obtain an early edition of the Evening Standard). We eventually made our way to Victoria Station, where our journey to Epsom was to originate and where thousands of others were already camped outside waiting for it to reopen.

As the hours passed and the 6:30 p.m. post time approached, I began to despair that we would never make it to Epsom. It was a selfish view to be sure given the loss of so many innocents a few hours before, but again information on the fallout was a little hard to come by given our resources. The thought did cross my mind that the Epsom card might have to be canceled, but I didn't want to take the chance of it proceeding without us in attendance.

Around 4 p.m. or so, Victoria Station finally reopened. After a brief international call to my father to tell him of our safety, and the purchase of two tickets to Tattenham Corner station, we were on our way.

After a journey of an hour, the legendary Downs was in sight as we departed the train. There was still a bit of a hike, downhill and then uphill, to be made toward the grandstand, but we were finally here. I found the view majestic, and then increasingly disconcerting the closer we got to the enclosures.

Roughly halfway down the lawn that runs parallel with the famous stretch, a pensioner walking toward us muttered "Racing's canceled."

"Are you kidding?" I think was my shallow retort.

We spent the next 30-45 minutes snapping photos of the course and stands, while not wandering too deep into the facilities or paddock area lest we be stopped for trespassing. That over, there was nothing left to do but catch the next train back to London.

A couple of days later, I mailed from Oxford our unused tickets for a refund (I wound up losing a few bucks based on a change in the exchange rate from January to July). When I arrived back home, I sent an e-mail to the fine folks at Epsom explaining our hard-luck story and, per my request, they very kindly sent me a program and Queen's Stand badges as mementos for the day of racing that never was.

Ten years on, the day remains an unforgettable one from every respect. Not everyone can say they were near the center of an historical foreign event in real time, even one as tragic as the London bombings.

Having started a family and bought a house soon after, the bride and I have not had the wherewithal to contemplate a similar trip in the intervening years. A makeup trip to Epsom, as well as to other English courses, remains a dream more than a reality. But like the hope for a good horse, it's a reason to get up every day.

(Photos by Vance Hanson; Headline photo courtesy of Racing Post)