How the Epsom Derby began

March 15, 2018

The Epsom Derby has long been hailed as the greatest horse race in the world, and it is certainly an event that has stood the test of time. 

Australians might argue for the Melbourne Cup being the biggest race, but the fact is the Epsom Derby dates all the way back to 1780. The city of Melbourne would not even exist for another 55 years. Indeed, when the Derby started it would be nearly eight years before the first convicts arrived in Australia. 

The event predates not just other big horse races like the Cheltenham Gold Cup (1819) and the Grand National (1839), but other great sporting institutions like the Open Golf Championship (1860), the FA Cup (first final 1872), Test cricket (1877 in Australia, 1880 in England) and the Home Nations rugby championship - the forerunner of today's Six Nations (1883). Many more events could be added to this list, for the Derby really is the most enduring of them all.  

Racegoers enjoying corporate hospitality at the event can experience everything that Epsom Racecourse and the event it hosts brings today - the pageantry, the huge crowds and, of course, top-class racing. All this is the continuation of an event that may arguably be said to have its origins even further back than 1780. 

The discovery of medicinal salts in the local water in 1618 had prompted the growth of the town of Epsom, but through the 17th century the downs remained a popular open space for recreation. Horses were often raced there, apart from the period between 1649 and 1660, when Cromwell's republic banned the sport.

In 1661, however, the first race meeting at Epsom was held, with King Charles II present. He began a long royal association with the venue. 

However, it was not until 1730 that regular meetings took place, with one in May and another in October.  

The 12th Earl of Derby was a steward at many of these events and it is believed - though not confirmed - that the Derby began when he and Jockey Club chairman Sir Charles Bunbury tossed a coin over the name of the new mile-long race for three-year-olds. If true, a single spin of a coin or lucky bounce might have made the Bunbury Stakes the most enduring horse race of all. It was not all bad news for Sir Charles, however, as he owned the first winner, Diomed.

What is certain is that Lord Derby was behind the foundation of the Oaks, a race named after his house, which was first run in 1779. During the 1778 May meeting, he held a party at which one of the guests, General John Burgoyne, suggested the idea of the race. 

It was just four years after the first Derby was run that the course was extended by half a mile to reach its current length.  

So it was that Epsom had two races that have endured ever since, providing some spectacular and memorable moments down the years. The majority of these, of course, are no longer the stuff of living memory but simply the stuff of history books and black-and-white photographs. 

Lord Derby could hardly have imagined that his lucky call on a coin toss would ensure his name is on every Epsom racegoers' lips in June 2018.

Image: Christopher Jackson/Getty Images from Keith Prowse subscription

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