Wednesday 17 June 2020

Brief History of the Derby

Legend has is that the Derby was so-called as the result of a coin toss between its co-founders, Edward Smith-Stanley, 12th Earl of Derby, and Sir Charles Bunbury, Chairman of the Jockey Club. The veracity of that claim is debatable but, either way, the Derby Stakes was run for the first time on May 4, 1780.

Derby had already founded the Oaks Stakes, open to three-year-old thoroughbred fillies, and run over a mile-and-a-half on Epsom Downs, the previous year. By contrast, the Derby Stakes was open to three-year-old thoroughbred colts and fillies but, for the first three years of its existence, was run not over a mile-and-a-half, but over a straight mile. It was not until 1784 that the distance was extended by four furlongs and the sweeping, downhill turn into Tattenham Corner was incorporated into the Derby course. Apart from the years 1915-1918 and 1940-1945, when Epsom Downs was commandeered by the Army and a substitute race, known as the ‘New Derby, was run on the July Course at Newmarket, the Derby has continued, uninterrupted, ever since.

That said, the Derby was ‘interrupted’ on June 4, 1913, when suffragette Emily Davison ran out onto the course at Tattenham Corner. Her purpose for doing so is debated to this day, but she was struck by Anmer, owned by King George V, suffered a fractured skull and died from her injuries four days later, without regaining consciousness.

On a lighter note, the Derby is, and probably always will be, synonymous with the legendary Lester Piggott who, with nine winners, is far and away the most successful jockey in the history of the Epsom Classic. Piggott became the youngest jockey ever to win the Derby when, at the age of eighteen, he rode 33/1 chance Never Say Die to victory in 1954 and subsequently added Crepello (1957), St. Paddy (1960), Sir Ivor (1968), Nijinksy (1970), Roberto (1972), Empery (1976), The Minstrel (1977) and Teenoso (1983) to his impressive winning tally.

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