Epsom hold their Investec Spring Meeting today with the feature event the Investec Derby Trial.
At the beginning of June, the Epsom Downs play host to two of the most prestigious races in the Flat racing calendar; the Derby and the Oaks. The most talented three-year-old colts and fillies will assemble at the Surrey track, hoping to capture the valuable and hugely historic prizes.
Epsom is a unique test for a racehorse. It’s an undulating track with a sweeping downhill bend known as Tattenham Corner, which leads to a four-furlong home straight. The famous bend is a huge test for a young horse, and once gathered for the run to the line they have then to cope with the famous camber which serves to unbalance the horse further as it tries to make its play for glory.
The first recorded race on ‘The Downs’ took place in 1661, with Charles ll reputed to have been a regular racegoer. Just over a century later, Edward Smith-Stanley, the 12th Earl of Derby, organised a race for three-year-old fillies. The event was named the Oaks after his estate. A year later in 1780, a new race was added for three-year old colts and fillies and was named the Derby. In 1784 the course was extended to its current distance of a mile and a half to incorporate Tattenham Corner.
Over time the Epsom Derby has become the World’s most famous race. In 1913 the event was struck by tragedy that would impact not only on racing, but on society as a whole. Suffragette Emily Wilding Davison stepped out in front of King George V’s horse Anmer, sustaining injuries that would end her life. Davison had been an activist for many years, and it seems likely that her actions on Derby Day were to highlight the suffragette movement and the rights of women in society.
To be successful at Epsom a horse generally has to well-balanced; a smooth mover, with the ability to quickly adjust both body and legs in order to first stay in touch and then to mount a meaningful and persistent challenge.
One of the most successful horses at the famous track is the Aiden O’Brien trained St Nicholas Abbey. He was a perfect three from three at Epsom, though sadly failed to make the start for the Derby of 2010 due to injury. His trio of victories came in the Coronation Cup, when showing a devastating turn of foot. He had a noticeably ‘quick’ action. It was that rapid, almost ‘choppy’ running style, rather than a long ranging stride that probably typifies a racehorse suited best to Epsom’s very individual demands.
Some find Epsom glory despite failing to cope with the course. Shirley Heights was one such Derby hero, who struggled at various stages in 1978, having drifted wide coming downhill around Tattenham Corner, and then hanging left across to the rail up the home straight. Despite covering most parts of the Epsom turf he still managed to get his head in front as the line approached, under a powerful drive from jockey Greville Starkey.
One would expect a huge horse to struggle with the undulations and sharp bends, and it’s fair to say that size is certainly not an advantage at this particular track. Yet one huge beast famously struck gold in the 1982 Epsom Derby. Golden Fleece was an enormous, heavily built bay by Nijinsky, bred in America and trained in Ireland by Vincent O’Brien. Carrying the famous Robert Sangster silks, he was undefeated in a short four race career.
Ridden in the Derby by Pat Eddery, he was allowed to bowl along on the inner some way down the field, before being switched wide after Tattenham Corner to make his challenge in the home straight. He cruised to the front before being driven to a comfortable victory. His winning time was the fastest for 50 years, and Eddery called him ‘the best I have ever sat on.’ Sadly, he was never to run again, after a number of training setbacks.
In 1985 Sir Henry Cecil produced a Derby winner that clearly loved the track. Slip Anchor ran away with the race, under an enterprising ride from the wonderfully talented Steve Cauthen. The horse never moved from the rail, sweeping around Tattenham Corner as if on tracks. All the way up the straight he never moved more than a few inches away from the rail. It was a perfect Epsom performance from the beautifully balanced racehorse.
Today’s Investec Derby Trial is a chance for horses to not only test their ability but also their suitability as a Derby prospect at Epsom. Several may lack the talent at this level, but some will also lack the physical capability to cope with the unique demands of the Epsom Downs.