A brief history of... the Derby

As tens of thousands of punters descend on Epsom to watch the Derby, Julian Humphrys looks at the history of Britain’s richest horse race...

This article was first published in the June 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine

In 1902, the record-breaking mare Sceptre won four of British flat-racing’s classic races. Yet a bruised foot meant victory in the Derby eluded her. (Topfoto)

 

Why is it called the Derby?

It’s named after Edward Smith-Stanley, 12th Earl of Derby. In 1780, he co-founded this classic 1.5-mile race for three-year-old thoroughbred colts and fillies with his friend, the Jockey Club steward Sir Charles Bunbury.

Some accounts claim the pair tossed a coin to decide who the race should be named after – although Bunbury probably deferred to his aristocratic friend.

 

What’s a thoroughbred?

They’re slim, high-spirited and speedy horses, specifically bred for racing. The breed originated in the 17th and 18th centuries when British mares were crossbred with imported eastern stallions. In fact, all modern thoroughbreds can trace their origins back to three of these stallions: the Byerly Turk, the Darley Arabian and the Godolphin Arabian, the latter being buried at the Wandlebury Ring near Cambridge.

 

What’s a classic race?

It’s one of five races for three-year-olds run during the flat-racing season. In addition to the Derby, there’s the St Leger, named after Anthony St Leger, a British soldier who inaugurated the Doncaster race in 1776; the Oaks, which was first run in 1779 on the Oaks estate of the Earl of Derby; and the 2,000 Guineas and 1,000 Guineas, which were established in the early 19th century and are run on the famous Rowley Mile at Newmarket in Suffolk.

 

Has any horse won all five?

No, although the mare Sceptre – bred by the Duke of Westminster in 1899 – won the 2,000 Guineas, the 1,000 Guineas, the Oaks and the St Leger in 1902, and might have won the Derby had it not been for a bruised foot. She remains the only horse to have won four classic races outright; Formosa had nearly done so in 1868, but dead-heated in the 2,000 Guineas.

 

Has the Derby always been run at Epsom?

No. During the Second World War, the race was continued as a boost to morale, but the establishment of an anti-aircraft battery on Epsom Downs led to both it and the Oaks being relocated to Newmarket. The continuation of racing was not universally popular. Many saw it as an unnecessary drain on scarce resources and manpower – even the Pathé News report of the 1941 race has a somewhat disapproving tone. 

Julian Humphrys is a writer and development officer at the Battlefields Trust.

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