The greatest Epsom Derby races

February 27, 2018

There are many great sporting events around the world, but the glory of the Epsom Derby is that it has been going longer than just about any other.

While the 19th century saw the advent of the FA Cup, Test match cricket and the revival of the Olympic games, the first Derby took place way back in 1780. 

Indeed, the one race that precedes it is the Oaks, which was run at Epsom Downs in 1779 with such success that it prompted the 12th Earl of Derby and Jockey Club bigwig Sir Charles Bunbury to organise the first Derby. The Earl, who had already named the Oaks after his house, is rumoured to have won a toss of a coin over the naming of the new race.

So began the Derby, a race that is invariably a thriller, featuring some of the finest horses that trainers and breeders have ever put on a racecourse. There have been one or two notorious races; in 1913, suffragette Emily Davidson was killed after running onto the course in protest and being hit by the King's horse, while in 1844, the original 'winner' Running Rein was disqualified after it turned out he was actually an ineligible four-year old called Maccabeus.

For the most part, however, Derby history is a treasure trove of magnificent spectacles as tight finishes, come-from-behind surges and compelling back stories have dominated the history of the race. Indeed, some of the greatest wins have come when outsiders have triumphed against the odds, with last year's 40/1 outsider Wing of Eagles being a case in point. 

However, for many people, the greatest Derby race of all came in 1970, when Lester Piggott rode Nijinsky to victory. With just two furlongs to go, he was in fourth in a tight cluster at the front, with Great Wall just ahead. Then Gyr hit the front, with Stitino looming in third.

It was through this group that Nijinsky surged with an astonishing burst of pace, leaving the other three trailing desperately as Piggott, like a driver who had suddenly found an extra gear and slammed his foot down, surged clear to pass the post. 

Shergar's victory in 1981 was another famous race. So good had his form been in the lead-up to the race that he was only the third horse since the war to be an odds-on favourite for the Derby. 

Sure enough, with a couple of furlongs to go, the horse demonstrated his full brilliance, surging clear and winning by ten lengths despite cantering over the line at the end, the widest recorded winning margin in the history of the race.

It was a remarkable sight for all who saw it, made all the more poignant for the subsequent mysterious disappearance of the horse in Ireland two years later.

Workforce was another horse that broke records, winning in the fastest time on record in 2010, with the seven-lengths distance being the third largest ever. The 6/1 shot made the most of the firm ground and fast pace to turn in an extraordinary display of speed and energy.

These, of course, are just some of the great Derby races from down the years. Many people will have their own favourites. And, who knows, perhaps 2018 will bring a race to top them all? Whatever happens, this year's Investec Epsom Derby will represent a continuation of the richest of sporting histories. 

Image: Warren Little/Getty Images from Keith Prowse subscription

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