Epsom Derby: History of the Derby

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The Bunbury does not quite have the same allure to it as the Derby but, if a flipped coin had fallen the other way, then that is how the premier British Classic would probably have been known.

In 1776, ‘Gentleman’ Johnny Burgoyne, a soldier, playwright and politician who married into the Derby family and had passed on the lease of his Surrey mansion, the Oaks, to the 12th Earl of Derby, Edward Smith-Stanley, urged his friend to introduce a race for three-year-old fillies over a mile and a half to emulate old comrade in arms Anthony St Leger, founder of the St Leger at Doncaster.

Three years later, on 14th May 1779, the Downs above the spa town of Epsom, hosted the initial Oaks and, appropriately, Lord Derby’s Bridget was victorious.

At a celebratory party that evening, Burgoyne proposed, because the Oaks had been such a great success, a similar race should be founded for both colts and fillies. Sir Charles Bunbury, a distinguished figure in the world of horseracing, was behind the concept of racing over a mile or a mile and a half.

Legend has it that Bunbury and Derby discussed the possibility and all that was left to do was name the race. Apparently, it was the toss of a coin in the latter’s favour that secured the race title, which started a worldwide franchise and lives on as strongly as ever.

On 4th May, 1780, the inaugural Derby Stakes was run for £1,065 15s. Despite losing the flip of the coin, Bunbury gained some compensation when Diomed carried his pink and white silks to success over a mile. The distance was changed to a mile and a half in 1784.

Lord Derby had to wait until 1787 before he saw his colours triumph in the Classic, when the previously unraced Sir Peter Teazle scored under Sam Arnull. Sir Peter Teazle was retired to stud in October, 1789, and developed into a great sire.

By the middle of the 19th century, the Derby had established itself as the most important race of the year in Britain, with many thousands flocking to Epsom Downs where there was also a huge fair.

The Classic used to be run on the first Wednesday in June, but since 1995 has taken place on the first Saturday of the month.

The British Parliament did not sit on Derby Day for many years such was the prestige of the premier Classic.

Copies of the race were spawned around the world and there are well over 200 different Derbys, some very illustrious like the Kentucky Derby – America’s most famous race – and others less so.

After the American Civil War, the Kentucky Thoroughbred industry experienced hard times and Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark represented a group interested in reviving racing in the US state. He travelled to England and France in 1872 to study European horseracing. While in England, Colonel Clark saw the famous Epsom Derby and, when he returned to Louisville, he made plans to create a race like the one he had witnessed.

The first Kentucky Derby was run at Churchill Downs in 1875. The fact that the Kentucky Derby takes place on dirt rather than turf and over 10 rather than 12 furlongs on the first Saturday in May does not diminish the sense of flattery towards Epsom Downs. The name Derby was used in America and many other countries to denote the best race for three- year-olds.

Epsom Downs Racecourse in Surrey has been the stage for the premier British Classic, except during both World Wars (1915–1918, 1940–1945) when the course was used to house prisoners of war. A substitute race, the New Derby, was staged at Newmarket instead.

The Investec Derby, a supreme challenge for three-year-olds over the unique undulating Epsom Downs track and a mile and a half, remains the most prestigious Flat race in the world and is the richest contest for that age group in Europe, as well as being Britain’s richest offering, with a prize fund of at least £1,325,000.

In order to consolidate the great race’s status, Epsom Downs Racecourse announced in November, 2015, that the Investec Derby will be worth at least £1.5 million in 2017.

There is a hugely illustrious roll of honour, which includes Bay Middleton, Ormonde, Isinglass, Hyperion and Bahram, while the last 50 years alone have seen such luminaries prevail as Sea-Bird, Nijinsky, Mill Reef, Shergar, Nashwan, Generous, Lammtarra, Galileo, High Chaparral, New Approach, Sea The Stars and Golden Horn.

Such names contribute to the Derby’s rich history, partly through their outstanding performances over Epsom Downs but also, for some, through their legacy as top stallions.

Galileo, European champion sire in 2008 thanks largely to his Derby winner New Approach and Coronation Cup victor Soldier Of Fortune and again in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015, demonstrated his prowess over the course as recently as 2001. Galileo has since sired three winners of the Investec Derby, most recently Australia in 2014.

There is an undoubted crescendo towards the first Saturday in June that commences with a lively ante-post betting market up to a year before the Investec Derby and helps sustain interest in the premier British Classic through the winter and into the spring.

Then the Classic trials get under way and the hopes and dreams of breeders, owners, trainers, jockeys, racegoers and punters are either encouraged or dashed as Investec Derby Day approaches.

The biggest infield crowd of any raceday each year in Britain is attracted to Epsom Downs on Investec Derby Day and the sense of occasion is palpable, with Her Majesty The Queen invariably present. This year will be especially memorable with a number of initiatives to mark Her Majesty’s 90th birthday.

There is a huge roar of anticipation as the runners break from the stalls and make their way uphill to the highest point of the course, over 500 feet above sea level, before sweeping down and around Tattenham Corner to enter the straight where the finish is fought out.

The Investec Derby is one of five British Classics, the others being the Investec Oaks, the QIPCO 1000 Guineas (Newmarket), the QIPCO 2000 Guineas (Newmarket) and the Ladbrokes St Leger (Doncaster).

The last two, along with the Investec Derby, make up the British Triple Crown which 15 horses have achieved, starting with West Australian in 1853 and most recently Nijinsky in 1970. Camelot (pictured) went close in 2012, winning the first two legs and then finishing the St Leger runner-up.



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