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There is the following sentence in the ending part of Jeffery Archer’s “The Forth Estate,” which I waded to after months.

In the showdown of the media owner Dick Armstrong and Sir Paul Maitland, Chairman of the media, who is critical about Armstrong’s foolhardy takeover at a board meeting, Armstrong says;

“Perhaps I deserve some praise for this monumental achievement rather than the continual carping criticism I get from a chairman whose idea of enterprise is to feed the duck on Epsom Downs.” – P 672.

I surmise an idea of the enterprise to “feed the duck on Epsom Downs” means to consider the activity of the enterprise as a petty charity, but I’m not sure.

Is “feed the duck on Epsom Downs” a popular phrase? Does the name of place (Epsom Downs, a pond, the lake) vary by the locale?

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@jwpat7 It's The Fourth Estate by Jeffrey Archer. Google Book Search apparently only has excerpts from the book, so I cannot verify the quotation. –  MετάEd Jul 6 '13 at 22:37
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From an English perspective, the location is immaterial; it usually happens in some park or public square. But the activity – feeding the ducks, or, sometimes, feeding the pigeons – is used from time to time in literature or cinema to express a character's feelings of loneliness, isolation, or despair. I haven't read anything but the sentence you've provided, but I'd interpret it as a jab at the chairman, a person the speaker resents because of some past criticism. –  J.R. Jul 6 '13 at 22:51
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After reading jwpat's excellent answer, I see that I've missed the mark entirely. I'll leave my comment here, though, because there are plenty of other contexts where feeding the ducks does refer to feeding ducks, rather than making ill-advised horse bets. –  J.R. Jul 8 '13 at 1:40

2 Answers 2

up vote 11 down vote accepted

I believe “feed the duck on Epsom Downs” means to bet on an Epsom Derby entrant who is unlikely to win. The Epsom Downs Racecourse hosts the annual Epsom Derby horse-race, which used to be “the most attended sporting event of the year” in England. The phrase derby duck refers to the situation of a horse (or an owner) who has several times tried and failed to win this or other Derbys. For example, one finds:

• Godolphin founder relying on hot-favourite Dawn Approach to break Derby duck and help restore the stable's reputation – The Guardian, 31 May 2013
• Manning, a leading jockey for several years, was delighted to finally break his Irish Derby duck. – Trinidad Express, 30 June 2013
• Racing: Dettori: Now I will break Derby duck. – The Mirror, 27 April 2000 via thefreelibrary.com
• VIC ON A MISSION TO BREAK DERBY DUCK; EXCLUSIVE
Breaking derby duck would mean a lot - Vic.
– Liverpool Echo, 26 October 2012 via thefreelibrary.com

Thus, duck in the question refers to an unlikely-to-win (or more precisely, a known-to-have-failed) prospect. Feed is being used as in feed a habit, or as in feeding coins into a slot machine; feed the duck thus being putting money down a rathole rather than making a rational investment.

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I've never come across the derby duck before, but Archer's (presumably, "one-off") usage certainly is an excellent put-down. I'll file it along with all the other esprit d'escalier ripostes I'll never actually get around to using. –  FumbleFingers Jan 9 at 17:47
    
+1. Well uncovered. I would never in a million years have guessed at anything even remotely like this. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 29 at 18:55

I used to live near Epsom (in the county of Surrey, England, south-west of London), and I drove across Epsom Downs on the way to work each day. I can confirm that there are no ducks (in the sense of aquatic birds), nor any lakes, ponds, streams, or other areas of water there.

On reading the expression, I assumed that it refers to horse racing, and the explanation from @jwpat7 seems likely.

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