Sporting Pursuits: Epsom Downs and the Derby

The Epsom Derby (globally, the “Epsom Derby”) remains the “derby” by which all over “derbies” are measured – a horse race run at the Classic distance of a mile and a half (in America, the  Classic distance is now a mile and a quarter) – for three year old horses.

In America, of course, we have the Kentucky Derby, which is offered for three year old Thoroughbreds (primarily colts, or young male horses), and, the day before, the Kentucky Oaks, which is offered for three year old Thoroughbred fillies (or young female horses). The Kentucky Derby is considered the “big race,” receiving top billing and plenty of network coverage on its Saturday afternoon spot, while the Kentucky Oaks gets considerably less coverage and a less desirable Friday afternoon post-time. Although, admittedly, efforts to tie in the filly race with breast cancer research have given it a little more publicity, it’s the boys that get the most coverage on Derby weekend.

Which is why, in researching the history of the Epsom Derby for my work-in-progress, I was interested to find that Lord Derby’s first horse-racing brain child was not in fact the classic race which would bear his name at racetracks around the world. Instead, it was the little sister of the Derby, the Oaks.

According to Epsom Downs’ website, in 1778, Lord Derby and a group of friends at his house, The Oaks, decided to offer a race at the 1779 Epsom meet for three-year-old fillies. The mile and a half race would be named for Lord Derby’s estate, and the first Oaks race was born. The race was such a success that in 1780 a race open to colts and fillies was planned: The Derby.

The website continues with a bit of fortuosity:

Legend has it that the 12th Earl of Derby and Sir Charles Bunbury (the leading figure in the Jockey Club, who was staying at the Oaks) spun a coin as to whether the race should be called the Derby or, the Bunbury Stakes. The first running of the Derby Stakes was over a mile and although Lord Derby won the toss of the coin, it was Sir Charles Bunbury who owned the first winner – Diomed.

We can all be thankful we are not celebrating the winners of the Kentucky Bunbury every May. To say nothing of the Florida Bunbury, the Ohio Bunbury, the Pennsylvania Bunbury, the United Arab Emirates Bunbury… I could go on. There are more than 140 “derbies” run around the globe.

James Pollard, Epsom Races: The Race Over, circa 1835

Massive crowds. By the late nineteenth century, Epsom would draw spectators from every walk of life.
James Pollard, Epsom Races: The Race Over, circa 1835. Via Wikipedia

Throughout the nineteenth century, horse racing would continue to reign as one of the greatest sporting spectacles in the British Empire. Already a carefully regulated sport by the early 1800s, with official stud books and stewards attending every recognized race, the British people continued to display their cultural affinity for a good horse.

Even, it turns out, paying as much attention to the fillies as to the colts.

Watch for more horse racing history as I continue to do research for an upcoming historical romance with the exciting Epsom Derby in the backdrop. I’m having a wonderful time with this one. Oh, I have to read about horse racing for research? Poor me, life is so hard!