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Espom Derby History

The town of Epsom first became famous for its natural mineral water when a local farmer, Henry Wicker took his cattle up to a watering hole on the Downs in 1618. 

The alleged healing properties of the water brought crowds from London who wanted to escape the squalor in return for the country air.

1661 saw the first recorded race meeting to be held on the Downs and the tradition continued until the summer of 1780 when one of today's greatest sporting spectacles was established.

Edward Smith Stanley, the 12th Earl of Derby, organised a race for himself and his friends to race their three-year-old fillies over one and a half miles. He named it the Oaks after his estate. The race became so successful that the following year a new race was added for colts and fillies.

The title of the race was decided after the Earl of Derby and Sir Charles Bunbury, a leading racing figure of the day and friend of the Earl's, flipped a coin. So begun the inaugural running of the 'Derby' won, incidentally, by Sir Charles Bunbury's horse Diomed.

The contest was held over a mile with the starting point in a straight line beyond the current five-furlong marker. Tattenham Corner was not introduced until 1784 when the course was extended to its current distance of a mile- and-a-half.

Since then, the race has produced some of the most remarkable stories in all of sport and has been the crowning glory for some of the greatest legends of the game, both human and equine.

Emily Davison

In 1913, for example, a young woman named Emily Davison attended the race. A keen suffragette, Emily dedicated her life to fighting the oppression of women – arguing for the right to vote and equality in law.

To gain publicity, Emily tried to grab the bridle of Anmer, King George V's horse, as it raced past her. Horrifically, she was trampled by the horse, suffering a severely fractured skull. She died without regaining consciousness. Although the suffragettes mourned her loss, they also applauded her bravery. The general public weren't so compassionate though and seemed more concerned with the fate of the horse and jockey, though neither turned out to be seriously hurt.

Emily's actions spurred many more women to act and, in 1918, parliament enfranchised women over the age of 30, eventually lowering the voting age to 21 in 1928, giving women complete political equality with men. Emily's sacrifice also had a big affect on the Derby itself – her legendary action had made the race more famous than ever.

Vincent O’Brien

Vincent O’Brien is arguably the greatest trainer of thoroughbreds there has ever been and his record is simply astonishing.

Initially he concentrated his efforts on jump racing. This led to a string of eye catching successes. These encompassed three consecutive Gold Cups (1948, 1949 and 1950), three consecutive Champion Hurdles (1949, 1950 and 1951) and three consecutive Grand Nationals (1953, 1954 and 1955). He is the only trainer ever to have sent out three consecutive winners of the Grand National, and he won a further Gold Cup in 1953.

In the late 1950's he switched his attentions to the flat and needless to say he met once again with considerable success. By the time he retired he had won sixteen English and twenty seven Irish classics, including six Derbys (Larkspur (1962), Sir Ivor (1968), Nijinsky (1970), Roberto (1972), The Minstrel (1977) and Golden Fleece (1982)).

Lester Piggott

Lester Piggott rode in the Epsom Derby on thirty-eight occasions and won the race nine times, including becoming the youngest ever to win the event in at the tender age of 18.

In his 47 years in the saddle he rode to victory 5,300 times in more than 30 countries. Aged 56, he claimed the 2,000 Guineas in 1992 on Rodrigo de Triano - his 30th British Classic win. He eventually retired in 1995 and some of his most noteable Derby's are detailed below:


Piggott's first Derby in 1951, when he was just 15, was on a temperamental character who planted and refused to budge until the remainder of the field were almost out of sight. What did Piggott learn from this experience? "Not to get left at the start".

GAY TIME (1952)

After winning well at Salisbury just seven days before the big race, Piggott considered his mount 'a certainty', but Charlie Smirke was in no mood to be upstaged and gave his young rival a famously hard time on the track. Smirke's mount, Tulyar, held off Gay Time by three-quarters of a length and Piggott was eventually unseated after the line.


The first of Piggott's nine successes in the race came aboard a 33-1 chance. The papers were in a frenzy about the youngest rider ever to win the race ever winner but, rather than stay out to celebrate, he was driven home by his parents where he to spend the evening mowing the lawn.


A heavily backed favourite, Piggott's winning ride cemented his reputation with punters and the press as being the best around. As he returned to the winner's enclosure, celebrity hairdresser 'Teasy Weasy' Raymond burst through the crowds to thrust a gold watch into the hands of the jockey as a thank-you present, while the horse's owner, Victor Sassoon gave Piggott his car, a Lincoln Continental limousine.

SIR IVOR (1968)

Any regrets the rider might have had about his split with Noel Murless did not last long. Sir Ivor became the first of four winners Piggott would partner for Vincent O'Brien, eight years after his previous Derby win on St Paddy Piggott found Sir Ivor an easy ride – "it was as if he knew what he was supposed to do".


Probably Piggott's most popular and famous winning ride in the race, the outstanding Nijinksy went on to become the first horse since Bahram in 1935 to win the Triple Crown. An iconic victory in the Derby, which took his record to eight from eight, was achieved in effortless fashion from French colts Gyr and Stintino.

ROBERTO (1972)

Piggott had to be at his very strongest to force the winner home from Rheingold, who might have won but for continually bumping into his rival. Short of room for manoeuvre, it took a ride of astonishing power and determination to secure a short-head verdict in a photograph which took the judge what seemed like hours to resolve.

EMPERY (1976)

A seventh Derby win made Piggott the winning most successful rider in the history of the race, but punters could have been forgiven for being surprised by the 10-1 success over hot favourite Wollow. Piggott repeated the success on The Minstrel the following year.

TEENOSO (1983)

The last of Piggott's wins, gained in the most testing conditions many could ever remember at the track. Trainer Geoff Wragg, in his first season with a licence, was given a dream start to his career and the horse proved the win to be no fluke when winning the King George the following year.


Having returned to the sport after serving a prison sentence for tax evasion, Piggott was a 58-year-old grandfather when he finished fifth behind Erhaab, closing a chapter in the history of the Derby as he rode in the race for the 38th and final time.

Nijinsky (1970)

Trained by the Irish genius Vincent O'Brien, he won all five of his races as a two-year-old and did not let his supporters down in the Derby, recording a stylish victory under the legendary Lester Piggott.

He landed the Irish Derby and King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, and went on to complete the Triple Crown (2000 Guineas, Derby and St Leger).

He ended his career with two defeats but they could not disguise the glory of his achievements earlier in the year.

Piggott paid him this tribute: "Nijinsky possessed more natural ability than any horse I ever rode".

Mill Reef (1971)

Mill Reef and the equally-brilliant Brigadier Gerard made 1971 a golden year for racing.

Both were outstanding champions in their own right and they remain two of the all-time greats. The "Brigadier" came out on top in the 2000 Guineas but he did not run at Epsom, leaving Mill Reef to make his own indelible mark in the history books.

The better of the pair over the Derby distance of a mile-and-a-half, Mill Reef later added the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot and the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in Paris to his impressive portfolio.

Shergar (1981)

Shergar is perhaps even better known these days for his unsolved disappearance than he is for his breathtaking display at Epsom, where he scored by an unprecedented 10 lengths.

After going on to land the Irish Derby and King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes, he was sensationally beaten in the St Leger and subsequently retired.

After spending just one season at the Aga Khan's stud in Ireland, he vanished during the night in February 1983 and was never seen again.

The kidnap made front-page news worldwide and before long, conspiracy theories began to circulate. Bogus ransom demands were received on more than one occasion and the kidnappers were said to have left photos of the horse in a hotel as proof that the champion stud was still alive. It was even suggested the IRA had taken the horse and shot him, but to this day, no proof exists as to what really happened.

Shergar's Derby win was named in the Observer's 100 Most Memorable Sporting Moments of the 20th Century.

Willie Carson

Five-time champion jockey Willie Carson won 17 British Classics and 11 Irish Classics in a glittering 34-year riding career.

Carson rode his first Classic winner on High Top in the 1972 2000 Guineas, the year he was crowned champion jockey for the first time and was also champion in 1973, 1978, 1980 and 1983.

Carson won the Derby for the first time on the brilliant colt Troy in the 200th running of the famous Epsom showpiece in 1979 and also won the turf's Blue Riband on Henbit (1980), Nashwan (1989) and Erhaab (1994) and rates Nashwan as the best horse he rode in his illustrious career.

He enjoyed his best season in 1990, riding 187 winners and retired from riding in 1996 at the age of 54. Carson was awarded an OBE in 1983 for services to racing.

Carson is now a very successful breeder and owns the 60-acre Minster Stud at Cirencester in Gloucestershire and was the first jockey to breed a British Classic winner, Minster Son, who he also rode, to win the 1988 St Leger in Lady Beaverbrook's silks.

Carson is fourth in the all-time list of champion flat jockeys in Britain behind Sir Gordon Richards, Lester Piggott and Pat Eddery.

The Queen

Queen Elizabeth comes to Derby Day every year, usually accompanied by Prince Philip.

As a racehourse owner, The Queen has had nine attempts to win the Epsom Derby - with a second place (Aureole, Coronation year, 1953) the best. Her last entry was thirty years ago, but this year she will be represented by race-favourite, Carlton House. Her previous attempts are detailed below:

AUREOLE (1953 - 2nd)

Aureole came closest to giving the Queen a Derby victory when runner-up to Pinza at Epsom Downs. Ridden by Harry Carr, the colt was sixth into the home straight and made headway in the final three furlongs but was unable to peg back Pinza.

LANDAU (1954 - 8th)

Landau finished a length second to Rowston Manor in the Lingfield Derby Trial but in the Derby itself, the colt led from three furlongs out until the quarter-mile mark, at which point he weakened tamely to finish eighth under Willie Snaith as Never Say Die went on to win.

ATLAS (1956 - 5th)

Sent off a 50/1 shot, Atlas made late headway at Epsom, coming home strongly under Harry Carr, to take fifth, a little over three lengths behind the victorious Lavandin.

DOUTELLE (1957 - 10th)

A winner of the Lingfield Derby Trial, Doutelle was at 100/6 chance for the Derby. But he was never in contention, trailing in tenth behind the winner Crepello under jockey Harry Carr.

MINER'S LAMP (1958 - 6th)

Miner's Lamp's won Epsom's Blue Riband Trial Stakes but was never able to challenge the front rank in the Derby and shared sixth place behind the winner, Hard Ridden.

ABOVE SUSPICION (1959 - 5th)

Sent off at 100/6 for the Derby, Above Suspicion raced towards the rear under Doug Smith before making strong progress in the home straight, running on to take fifth, three lengths behind his victorious stablemate, Parthia.

ENGLISH HARBOUR (1978 - 18th)

Ridden by Joe Mercer, English Harbour was never a factor in the Derby as he trailed home a distant 18th behind Shirley Heights, a horse he had finished fifth behind on his two-year-old debut in Newmarket's Limekiln Stakes.

MILFORD (1979 - 10th)

Sent off the 15/2 third favourite under Lester Piggott, the Royal colt weakened in the straight to finish about 15 lengths behind the triumphant Troy.

CHURCH PARADE (1981 - 5th)

Ridden by Willie Carson, Church Parade kept on at one pace under Willie Carson to take fifth, 18 lengths behind the imperious Shergar.

By the early nineteenth century there was one permanent stand for spectators, called the Prince's Stand. In 1828, the newly formed Epsom Grand Stand Association started to build a new stand which although not completed, was in use by the 1829 Derby.

Noteable events

1805 – One of the horses was brought down by a spectator.
1838 – Amato never raced before or after winning the Derby.
1844 – The original winner Running Rein was disqualified as he was actually an ineligible four-year-old horse named Maccabeus.
1881 – Iroquois became the first American-bred to win a leg of the British triple crown.
1884 – The race finished with a dead-heat between Harvester and St. Gatien.
1887 – Merry Hampton is the most recent horse to win the Derby with no previous victories.
1894 – The winner was owned by the Prime Minister at the time, the 5th Earl of Rosebery.
1901 – The first year in which a mechanical starting gate was used.
1909 – Minoru was the first Derby winner owned by a reigning monarch, King Edward VII, who had previously won twice as Prince of Wales.
1913 – The 6/4 favourite Craganour, owned by Charles B. Ismay, brother of J. Bruce Ismay of the Titanic, was controversially disqualified, and the race was awarded to the 100/1 outsider Aboyeur. Suffragette Emily Davison is struck by King George V's horse, Anmer, she dies four days later.
1916 – Fifinella, who also won the Oaks, is the most recent of six fillies to win the race. The previous five were Eleanor (1801), Blink Bonny (1857), Shotover (1882), Signorinetta (1908), Tagalie (1912).
1921 – The winner Humorist died two weeks after the race.
1927 – The first Derby to be broadcast by the BBC.
1932 – April the Fifth is the most recent winner trained at Epsom.
1946 – Airborne is the most recent of 4 grey horses to win the Derby.
1953 – Pinza was the first winner in the race for the jockey Sir Gordon Richards, after 27 unsuccessful attempts.
1989 – The runner-up Terimon is the longest-priced horse to finish placed in the Derby, at odds of 500/1.
1996 – Alex Greaves became the first (and so far only) lady jockey to ride in the race. She finished last on the filly Portuguese Lil.
1998 – The most recent filly to take part, the 1,000 Guineas winner Cape Verdi, started as 11/4 favourite but could only finish 9th.
2007 – Authorized provided jockey Frankie Dettori with his first winner in the Derby after 14 previous attempts.
2008 – Jim Bolger, the trainer of Derby winner New Approach, had left the horse entered for the race "by mistake", having not initially intended to run him.

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