Brief History of the Epsom Derby

Here we are going to give you a brief history of the Epsom Derby for the horse racing fans. The Epsom Derby is a horse race that has taken place every year at Epsom Downs in Surrey, England since 1780.  It is the second leg of The Triple Crown, preceded by the 2000 Guineas Stakes and followed by The Oaks Stakes.

The race is named after ‘Epsom’, an area in Surrey close to where the racecourse is situated. Epsom Downs Racecourse was formerly known as “Abbots’ (or ‘Abbott ‘s’) Course” and as “Epsom Downs”.

list of epsom derby winners

In 1780, George Frederick, Prince of Wales founded the Derby Stakes on this site. The first running was won by Diomed, one of the ancestors of modern Thoroughbred racing.

First Epsom Derby

The first Epsom Derby was originally open to horses who had not won a  race in the previous year. All horses entering were required to pay a ten-pound forfeit, which was refunded if they won. The rules stipulated that when the racecourse contained at least fifty horses, the race would be run in two separate heats and produce a winner from each heat. In 1814 it was decided that both races would become run in perpetuity, and the forfeit amount was discontinued.

Until 1923 it was open to three-year-old colts and fillies who had never won a race other than Maiden Plate or Class Two events, which were the two lowest rated races on British racecourses. It was founded by Charles Bunbury, with its original distance being one and a half miles.

epsom derby winners since 1970

In 1784, Epsom Derby was renamed “The Derby”. It was named after the Earl of Derby, who had sponsored Bunbury’s horse racing interests. In 1848, the Racecourse Betting Act received Royal Assent in the United Kingdom which legalised betting on horse races across Great Britain. This act established what is known today as the modern betting industry.

In 1929, the Derby was controversially affiliated with Newbury Racecourse in Berkshire, some thirty-five miles away. This followed hot on the heels of a two-year experiment carried out at Folkestone (1927–29). The move resulted in substantial protests from rebels supporting the stand-alone racecourse at Newmarket. At this time in its history, the Derby had no fixed venue and was run at two different courses over two consecutive years (1929–30). The official course was switched to alternative locations but in practice, the running location often depended on available turf at each site.

The 1930s saw a  dramatic increase in the status of the race. International race winners, such as Blue Peter and Mid-day Sun were invited to take part in 1930 and 1933 respectively. However, it was not until 1935 that King Edward VII’s interest in racing brought about his accession to The Jockey Club which ultimately resulted in his winning owners being allowed to run horses in the race.

In 1940, a new grandstand was opened at Epsom Downs Racecourse and it remains a focal point on the hillside today. In 1941, due to fears over potential fire damage from Nazi German bombing raids during World War II, Epsom Downs Racecourse itself was closed for two months from July 5 to September 1.

In 1953, the Derby was given its present title – The Epsom Derby. This came about following a decision by the racecourse to drop all names from stakes races other than The Oaks and the Derby itself. It is popularly thought that this decision was made by Lester Piggott because he did not want his daughters to have to advertise their name if they won the race.

The 1950s saw a rise in Derby prize money, with £35,000 being awarded to the winner in 1956 – up from just £2,730 in 1933. The event became increasingly popular both domestically and worldwide during this era. Attendance figures peaked at 120,000 for one meeting in the late 1950s.

The 1970s brought about increasing difficulties for horse racing following the UK Government’s Betting and Gaming Act 1960, which liberalised betting laws to allow off-course cash bets (in shops, on football pools etc.). The effect was dramatic with an immediate loss of around 20% of turnover in betting turnover. Racecourse attendances also suffered a dramatic decline.

In 1972, the pre-race show prevailed to an extent that was not seen since its earliest days as a race meeting, with Princess Anne presenting the trophy. In 1973, the Derby made headlines across the world when Roberto won for owner Gimcrack Stable at 50/1 – making him the biggest outsider to win the race in its history.

In 1976, The Derby was allowed to run on Polytrack for the first time. This new surface was not well received by racing enthusiasts and many bookmakers refused to pay out when horses trained on it won races (including two winners of The Derby). It also proved difficult to get rid of the smell of horseshoe rubber! The serious injury to Istabraq that year, who slipped on the surface at the start of the race, was another negative factor. Despite all of these hurdles, Polytrack remained in place at Epsom Downs until 1987 when it was replaced by a safer – but less exciting – grass course.

Nevertheless, the 1980s saw significant progress in testing the Derby distance (at Epsom). In 1981, The Derby was cut to 1¾ miles (2.4 km) for the first time since 1952. This resulted in an increase of both prize money and field size – with twenty-five runners taking part that year. The distance was restored to its full 2½ miles (4 km) in 1982 but reduced back to 1¾ miles (2.4 km) in 1985 where it remained until 1997 when the race returned once more to its full Derby distance.

The 1980s also saw an increase in the number of international contenders with Northern Dancer’s son  Risen Star being the first horse to win at both Epsom Downs and Churchill Downs (the Kentucky Derby). In 1987, Irish trainer Jim Bolger became the third man ever to train a Derby winner having not been born in Britain or Ireland – horses from this country have dominated since then.

In 2002, the National Trainers Federation for Disabled People  (NTFP) was founded at Epsom Downs Racecourse. This organisation works alongside the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) to make horse racing as accessible as possible for people with disabilities.

In 2003, Racing Post and Daily Mail started a new initiative called “Race For Life” which sees major initiatives from trainers of Derby contenders. The idea behind this was to try and find some new tactic or training technique that would give the Derby winner an advantage. To date, no such breakthrough has been found (and all winners since 2003 have been trained by British and Irish-based trainers). The 2005 running of the race saw a first in the history of horseracing as 100,000 people attended on a day when there was no post-race concert.

In 2006, the National Gallery of Ireland displayed a painting by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo as part of its “Irish collection: paintings 1630-1830” exhibition which ran from 28th March to 15th May. The picture –  the only known portrait of a racehorse (outside of an equine group portrait) – was donated to the gallery by Ireland’s leading steeplechase owner and breeder, John Magnier. The Irish-born Jockey Club member has been racing horses since 1995 and is better known as part owner and bloodstock advisor to Coolmore Stud (whose horses have won six Derbies since 2001).

In 2008, the winning time of 2:59.40 by New Approach broke the course record and also became a new world record for 1¼ miles (2 km) on turf. This beat the previous record set by Golan in 1999 – who held off his Derby rival that year, Refuse to Bend.

The 2010 Epsom Derby saw the first joint-training of two horses in the race – with High Chieftain and Ericht running for Godolphin and Aurillac and Morito running under new trainer Aidan O’Brien (who had previously only ever trained one of the runners). In 2011 (following an appearance by William Hill at the BHA’s annual lunch), bookmaker became the official sponsor of The Derby. This new arrangement will result in an increase in both prize money and field size (to 30 runners) for that race.