We are now just days away from one of the world’s most famous sporting events, the Epsom Derby.
It’s hard to believe that it was first run in 1780 and over the years has inspired similar races around the world. The race has been run at Epsom since its conception. In its early years the event had very much a ‘festival’ feel. Londoners, both aristocracy and the common man, would flock to ‘The Downs’ to experience this great event. Tents were erected housing various gambling games; alcohol would flow and the actual horse races themselves would become something of a sideshow.
After the Derby of 1795, A Times correspondent reported: “Almost the whole of what may be justly styled the ‘vagabond gamblers’ of London were present. Mr Bowes, half-brother of the Earl of Strathmore, was robbed of a gold watch and a purse containing 30 guineas at Epsom races, on Thursday last. Many other persons shared a similar fate, both on the same evening and on Friday. Upwards of 30 coaches were robbed coming from the races.”
Attendances rose dramatically in the early years. In the late 1700’s around 8,000 people would attend, but by the 1820’s that had rose to 80,000. Still very few took much notice of the racing, with just a few hundred ‘noblemen’ taking a keen interest, with large amounts of money changing hands in the self-assembled betting rings.
Over time the equine stars would rightly become the centre of attention at Epsom. The ‘Sport of Kings’ became a sport of the people; and as the country and then the world took the giant sporting event to their hearts, so some of those horses have become legends within the sport. The names of Derby winners are passed from generation to generation with a mystical aura.
Sea Bird, Nijinsky, Troy and Shergar are just a few that instantly spring to mind, conjuring an image of equine invincibility. The Derby is a race that can elevate a horse’s profile like no other. Not only is the race of huge monetary value, both in prize money and of course in stud value once the horse retires, but it is more than that. A Derby winner takes on an air of nobility among his peers.
But even among Derby winners there has to be Kings, Princes and plain old Dukes or Earls. The achievements of horses such as Nijinsky, set them apart from many Epsom Derby heroes. Trained by Vincent O’Brien, this son of Northern Dancer won horse racing’s ‘Triple Crown’ by taking the 2,000 Guineas, The Derby and the St Leger in a stunning summer of 1970.
Sea Bird is thought by many experts to be a King among Kings in the equine world. Trained in France, he came over to England to take the Derby in 1965, winning the race without coming off the bridle. The vanquished Meadow Court went on to win the Irish Derby and the King George. Sea Bird would go on to thrash a high class field in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. His Timeform rating of 145 was the highest ever, until Frankel received a rating of 147 in 2012.
Shergar’s Derby win in 1981 was simply incredible. His ten length success remains the largest winning margin in the races’ history. It’s probably fair to say that the opposition looked ordinary at best, but he went on to take the Irish Derby and then thrash his elders in the King George. His romp at Epsom will always be known as one of the most memorable Derby’s.
Finally a mention for the sensational Sea The Stars. He took the 2,000 Guineas before winning The Derby at Epsom. His 2009 campaign was incredible for the level of achievement; winning six Group 1’s in six stunning months, culminating in his Arc success at Longchamp. He was a phenomenon.
The Derby of 2015 looks an open affair and there’s a chance that the race may lack an equine King. We may have to settle for a Duke or an Earl, but the event will nevertheless attract attention throughout the globe.
The Epsom Derby remains one of the greatest sporting events.