Beginner’s Guide to the Epsom Derby

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Racing for Change reveals some fascinating facts and figures about one of Britain’s iconic races:

Heads or tails

The Derby would be called The Bunbury had a coin tossed between two aristocrats, the 12th Earl of Derby and Sir Charles Bunbury, landed the other way round.  Bunbury got his own reward when his horse Diomed won the first Derby in May 1780.

Why does The Derby matter?

It’s simply the greatest horse race in the world – the one that every owner, trainer and jockey wants to win more than any other!  It is Britain’s richest race, open to three-year-old colts and fillies.  Run over a distance of one mile, four furlongs and ten yards, it is the most important race in the inaugural QIPCO British Champions Series that climaxes at Ascot on British Champions Day in October.

A tale of two Queens

Queen Victoria preferred Ascot Racecourse to Epsom, especially after the caterers on the Downs – in 1840 – failed to provide bread at her luncheon.  She never returned.  In contrast, the current Queen tries to be at The Derby every year.

A life at stud

A Derby winner brings a fortune in stud fees. The ill-fated Shergar, for example, was syndicated for £10 million after victory in 1981. Nowadays, that figure can be three or four times as much.

No U, X or Z

There are only three letters of the alphabet with which a Derby winner’s name has not begun.  In 1990, Quest For Fame was the first horse whose name started with Q to win the race, but there have not been any Derby winners with a first initial U, X and Z.

The Derby King

The Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, won the race three times, the final time with Minoru in 1909, the only horse owned by a reigning monarch to triumph to date.  It could change…

Suited and booted

In the Queen’s Stand on Derby day, gentlemen must wear either black or grey morning dress with a top hat, service dress or full national costume.  Ladies must wear formal day dress, or a tailored trouser suit, with a hat or substantial fascinator.

The long shots

The three longest-priced Derby winners were 100–1 shots – Jeddah in 1898, Signorinetta in 1908 and Aboyeur in 1913.

Death and disqualification

The only disqualification in the race’s history happened in 1913, when the race was marred by the death of suffragette Emily Davison who was killed when running in front of the King’s horse.

The highs and the lows

The largest number of runners was 34 in 1862 and the smallest was just four in 1794.  There is now a maximum of 20.

The grey days

Four grey horses have won – Gustavus in 1821, Tagalie in 1912, Mahmoud in 1936 and Airborne in 1946.

Leave that one to the judge

There have been two dead-heats.  In 1884 St Gatien and Harvester shared the prize, but in 1828 The Colonel and Cadland had a rematch later in the afternoon, with the latter winning.

Britain’s biggest picnic

As well as many thousands of people in the grandstands, tens of thousands more people pack The Hill on Derby day.  Crowds of more than 150,000, many of them with hampers and tents, create Britain’s biggest picnic.  However, barbecues are banned.

Easy for trainers

Epsom Downs Racecourse is served by no fewer than three railway stations – Epsom, Epsom Downs and Tattenham Corner.  Epsom has the most frequent service of the three, with shuttle buses and taxis to the racecourse.  Epsom Downs and Tattenham Corner are a short distance away, with the latter easily walkable.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

A condition was introduced in 1831 that the owner of the victorious horse pay 100 sovereigns towards the cost of the police required to control drunken racegoers.

The big picture

The 1952 drama film, Derby Day, starring Michael Wilding and Anna Neagle, is set around The Derby.

War and peace

The Derby was run at Newmarket during the First and Second World Wars.

Top jock

Lester Piggott was 18 when he won on Never Say Die in 1954 and he rode in the race 36 times, winning an unequalled nine times.  His eight further winners were Crepello (1957), St Paddy (1960), Sir Ivor (1968), Nijinsky (1970), Roberto (1972), Empery (1976), The Minstrel (1977) and Teenoso (1983).

Young and old

The oldest winning jockey was John Forth, who was at least 60 when he won on Frederick in 1829, while the youngest was John Parsons, who was believed to be 16 when he won on Caractacus in 1862.

Something for the weekend

The first Saturday running of the Derby was in 1995 – Lammtarra, making his seasonal debut, won.

Fastest and widest

The quickest winning time was achieved by the 2010 winner Workforce – two minutes and 31.33 seconds.  The widest margin victor was Shergar in 1981 – 10 lengths.

One for the ladies

In 1916, Fifinella, who also won The Oaks, was the most recent of six fillies to win the race.  The previous five were Eleanor (1801), Blink Bonny (1857), Shotover (1882), Signorinetta (1908) and Tagalie (1912).  The most recent filly to take part, Cape Verdi in 1998, was the 11-4 favourite but could finish only ninth.

The Beeb

The BBC first broadcast The Derby in 1927.  Regular TV coverage began in 1960.

Sources: Racecourses on the Flat (John Tyrrel); World Atlas of Horse Racing (Julian Bedford); Racegoers Encyclopedia (John White);



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