Derby dream may become reality for 91-year-old environmental campaigner

In 1933, when Bill Gredley was born into a working-class family in the East End of London, it was a time when much of the local population would decamp to Epsom on the first Wednesday in June for an afternoon out at the Derby. It is probably fair to say the chance of Poplar’s newest resident making the same trip 91 years later as the owner of one of the big-race favourites were slim to nil.

But Gredley has always been something of a one-off, in racing as in life. The self-made property millionaire once turned up at Royal Ascot sporting a morning suit, a top hat and a ponytail, which caused a conniption among the ultra-conservatives in the Ascot fashion police. “They had a conference with the Queen and everybody, should they let me in?” Gredley said this week. “I was talking to the Queen many years later and she was giggling about it. She said they made such a fuss.”

Gredley was raising awareness of environmental issues decades ago, with horses named Eco Friendly and Environment Friend among others. He has a well-known penchant for offbeat sculpture and art and would be, by the length of the Epsom straight, the most engaging winning owner for many years if Ambiente Friendly, the fourth-favourite at odds of around 6-1, wins the 245th Derby on Saturday.

It is an odd quirk of fate, however, that victory for a man who has always had his own way of doing things would also be a triumph for a thoroughly old-school approach to breeding and racing thoroughbreds.

The first 200 or so years of the Epsom Classic were dominated by landed owner-breeders with a few mares at home, forever trying – and, for the most part, failing – to find the right combination of stallion and broodmare to produce a Derby winner. From the mid-1970s, the traditional methods were washed away by a new model of three-figure strings and seven-figure price-tags at the yearling sales, funded in large part by sovereign wealth.

Gredley, who bought the historic and magnificent Stetchworth Park Stud near Newmarket in 1980, is one of very few keepers of the old-fashioned flame.

Flat racing in Britain – and Europe, for that matter – has come to be dominated by two shades of blue – royal for Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin operation and dark for the Coolmore Stud syndicate’s runners from Aidan O’Brien’s stable in County Tipperary. O’Brien and Charlie Appleby, Godolphin’s principal trainer in Britain, have the first three names in the Derby betting between them. Gredley’s yellow, black and white silks, though, have remained a constant thread in the fabric of turf over recent decades – massively outnumbered, for sure, but never entirely overwhelmed.

His finest moments – so far – came when the filly User Friendly took the Oaks at Epsom and then followed up in the St Leger in 1992, but his Group One wins date back to the Eclipse Stakes at Sandown in 1991 and also include a memorable success in the Gold Cup at Ascot in 2017 with the popular stayer Big Orange. A Derby winner, though, would be the crowning glory. “I’ve been to all the top days around the world and I still get a tingle in my blood when I go to the Derby,” Gredley says.

“We’re so much into showjumping as well. I have a son [the prospective Olympian, Tim] who’s a very good international showjumper, so we’ve got so many Flat horses and showjumpers, but to win the Derby would be the ultimate for most people and it certainly would be for us.

“ This horse, we like very much. He’s showed us in the Lingfield Trial [in early May] that he’s got the speed and the talent and he can go down and come up the hill. His win at Lingfield was impressive. He’s been going well at home, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to win. It’s a horse race, it’s the Derby and just to be in the shake-up in the Derby you’d be happy.”

Ambiente Friendly on his way to winning the Lingfield Derby Trial this month. Photograph: PA Images/Alamy

Gredley’s unpredictable approach was in evidence again last week when it was announced that Rab Havlin would replace Callum Shepherd, the winning jockey on Ambiente Friendly at Lingfield, in the Classic. Havlin is a veteran of 33 seasons in the saddle but hardly a go-to Epsom jockey in the style of Lester Piggott or Kieren Fallon in days gone by.

Gredley’s intuition for a decision or a deal at just the right moment has taken him from unpromising beginnings to a 730-acre estate in Suffolk, however, and an instinct somewhere also prompted him to rekindle an old association with James Fanshawe when he was looking for a home for a yearling.

“Bill was buying nine horses for his 90th birthday at the Craven Breeze-Ups [in April] last year,” Fanshawe said this week. “Bill saw [former jockey] Freddy Tylicki and told him to go and find him a horse. Freddy bought him for Bill for 80,000gns [£84,000] and he would have made a lot more if it was known he was going to be a Derby contender.”

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Quick Guide

Greg Wood’s Friday tips

Show

Chepstow 1.20 Dancing The Dream 1.50 Mount Teide 2.25 Jacquelina 3.00 Treacherous 3.35 St Pancras 4.15 Trouville 4.45 Masonbrook Meadow 5.15 Absolute Queen

 

Carlisle 1.40 Ney 2.15 Georgecandoit 2.50 Elegant Erin 3.25 Anglesey Lad 4.00 Test Of Love 4.40 Darbucks

 

Epsom 2.00 New Charter 2.35 Bopedro (nb) 3.10 Feed The Flame 3.45 Derry Lad

4.30 Ylang Ylang (nap) 5.10 Pandora’s Gift 5.40 Mission To Moon

 

Doncaster 5.45 Sisterandbrother 6.15 Fifty Nifty 6.45 Nikovo 7.15 Mickley 7.45 Be Proud 8.15 Sir Galahad 8.50 Charging Thunder

 

Stratford 6.05 Castle Daragh 6.35 Famous Clermont 7.05 Iskandar Pecos 7.35 Annamix 8.05 Sixteen Letters 8.40 Fier Jaguen

 

Catterick 6.25 Military Girl 6.55 Piper’s Fort 7.25 Sugarpiehoneybunch 7.55 Seantrabh 8.25 Rapido Girl 9.00 Langholm

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It was Gredley’s choice, too, to campaign Ambiente Friendly, a son of Gleneagles, a 2,000 Guineas winner, as a middle-distance horse this year rather than a miler. “Bill and Tim identified the staying genes in his pedigree, whereas I would have more looked at going for something over a mile,” Fanshawe said.

With Ambiente Friendly confirmed as one of 16 starters, it feels like only the latest in a series of twists and turns, smart decisions and lucky breaks, that have taken the colt and his 91-year-old owner to within touching distance of Derby glory. At 4.30pm on Saturday, we will find out if the rest is history.

Quick Guide

Greg Wood’s Saturday tips

Show

Worcester 12.40 Brandt 1.10 Ballinoulart 1.45 Jackie Can 2.20 Highlands Legacy 2.55 Halifax 3.30 Isabella Bee 4.05 Soir De Gala 

Epsom 1.25 Portsmouth 2.00 Sparks fly 2.35 Highland Avenue 3.10 Grandlad 3.45 Dream Composer (nb) 4.30 Los Angeles (nap) 5.15 Kotari 5.50 Strike Red

Musselburgh 1.40 Golden Rainbow 2.15 Rock Melody 2.50 Combat Soldier 3.25 Jabaara 4.00 Watcha Matey 4.45 Circus Lion 5.20 Masham Moor

Hexham 4.15 Serious Ego 4.55 The White Volcano 5.30 Ashington 6.05 Kaaress 6.35 Halpha Soleil 7.07 No Rematch

Doncaster 4.38 Plus Point 5.08 Ripple Effect 5.40 Granger Bay 6.15 Wild Waves 6.50 Silver Samurai 7.20 Princess Karine 7.50 Emperor Caradoc 8.20 Dazy Mazy

Stratford 5.23 Winterwatch 5.55 Stay If U Want To 6.28 Voice Of Calm 7.00 Porter In The Park 7.30 Broken Quest 8.00 My Virtue 8.30 Forget The Way 9.00 Lost In The Mist

Lingfield 5.35 Shaheen Saqaar 6.10 Queens Fort 6.45 Isle Of Sark 7.15 Amestris 7.45 Usuario Amigo 8.15 Yantarni 8.45 El Hibri 

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Bank on O’Brien to lift Oaks

Robert Robson’s record total of 13 winners of the Oaks between 1802 and 1825 is one of very few in the English Classics that Aidan O’Brien has yet to reach, but he should move a step closer at Epsom on Friday when both Ylang Ylang (4.30) and Rubies Are Red will be live contenders to give him an 11th win in the fillies’ Classic.

Neither of O’Brien’s two runners will arrive on the back of a win, as Ylang Ylang was beaten in a blanket finish to the 1,000 Guineas on her seasonal debut earlier this month while Rubies Are Red was a fast-finishing second behind You Got To Me in Lingfield’s Oaks Trial.

Unlike several of their main rivals on ratings, though, including Secret Satire, the Musidora winner, both seem sure to relish the step up to a well-run 12 furlongs on easy ground.

The nagging concern about Rubies Are Red is that she looked a little uneasy on the hill at Epsom, and while Dermot Weld’s Ezeliya will attract support to give her trainer a second Oaks winner 43 years after the first, her bare form leaves her with plenty to find to trouble the favourite.

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