Epsom Derby History: Early Years & Race Winners

The world-renowned Epsom Derby, often referred to as just “The Derby” or the “The Derby at Epsom Downes” following its new sponsorship, is a notable race on many accounts.

It’s where suffragette Emily Davison brought down the King’s horse in 1913, producing one of the most sensational race moments in horse racing history, and West Australian became the first horse to win the Triple Crown.

The Derby Stakes is one of Britain’s richest flat races, boasting a total prize pot of £1.5m in 2023 – a significant increase from its pandemic-affected purse.

Currently, it’s the second most valuable race in the UK after the QIPCO Champion Stakes hosted by Ascot Racecourse. The Jockey Club is yet to announce the race value for the 2023 Derby at Epsom Downes Festival.

If you’re a fan of thoroughbred racing, nothing beats the Epsom Derby, which attracts thousands of racegoers to Epsom Down Racecourse in Surrey each year.

While it might not be the oldest racecourse globally, many consider Epsom Downs as the birthplace of thoroughbred racing. The Derby is one of five classic Group 1 races run in Britain alongside the Epsom Oaks, 2,000 Guineas, 1000 Guineas and St. Leger Stakes.

As we enter a historic year in racing with racecourses across the country celebrating Her Majesty the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, there’s no better time to look back on the history of the Epsom Derby.

From its early years to the most iconic Derby Stakes winners, discover everything there is to know about Britain’s most valuable flat race, loved by royalty and racing rookies alike.

Early Years: How Old is the Epsom Derby?

Epsom’s earliest race days can be traced back to the 17th century. According to historical records, Britain’s first recorded race meeting took place at Epsom on 7th March 1661.

While the origins of the Derby Stakes are a little ambiguous, history tells us that it was established in 1780 when the 12th Earl of Derby and Sir Charles Bunbury supposedly flipped a coin to determine whether the race would be named “Derby Stakes” or “Bunbury Stakes.”

Although Bunbury, who is regarded as the “perpetual president of the Jockey Club”, lost the coin toss, Newmarket later featured his name in the “Bunbury Cup.”

When was the First Epsom Derby Race?

The first Derby Stakes commenced on Thursday 4th May 1780 and was won by a Charles Bunbury-owned colt named Diomed, who took home prize money of £1,065 15s – equivalent to approximately £66,726 today.

Initially run over 1 mile, officials extended the race to 1 mile and a half in 1784, which remains the current distance of the race today.

The race is open to three-year-old fillies and colts but is rarely contested by the former. According to the Jockey Club history records, the last filly to run in the Derby was Cape Verdi in 1998, while the last to win the race was Fifinella in 1916.

The Epsom Derby established itself as a premier racing event during its early years, becoming a much-loved day out for Londoners and racing enthusiasts.

Its growing popularity soon caught the attention of aristocrats and workers across the country, with the various gambling games proving to be a hit among both, uniting those in pursuit of a good time.

At the time, the attending masses knew very little about horse racing and bets on horses were conducted between a few hundred of society’s elite.

Attendance ballooned to 8,000 by 1795, resulting in plans to build a Grandstand, which Epsom Racecourse completed in 1829. It was 156ft wide, 60ft in depth and accommodated 5,000 spectators.

The race’s prestige has seen many other racecourses adopt the “Derby” name, most notably the Kentucky Derby in the United States.

The Derby also has a history steeped in Royal affiliations. It’s no secret that Queen Elizabeth II is an avid horse racing fan and has attended various meetings, with her favourites said to be the Epsom Derby and, of course, Royal Ascot.

While HM the Queen hasn’t attended the Epsom Derby in the last two years due to pandemic-related restrictions and ongoing mobility issues, Epsom Downs looks forward to welcoming her in 2023. Though she is yet to produce a Derby winner, she has come a close second in recent years and has numerous victories in the Epsom Oaks race.

Cazoo Derby Festival Race

When is the Epsom Derby?

The date for the Epsom Derby has changed various times throughout history, having first run on a Thursday during late May.

It wasn’t until 1995 that the race date moved to the first Saturday in June. In 2024, the Epsom Derby Stakes falls on Friday 31st May 2024.

How Much is the Epsom Derby Worth?

The last Epsom Derby ran for £1.5 million, with the winner of the illustrious race receiving £892,160.

Epsom Derby Winners History

Considering the Derby Stakes has been running since 1780, there has been a fair share of star fillies and colts throughout its history. Here are just a few of them:

1970 Epsom Derby Winner – Nijinsky

Of course, Nijinsky has to be mentioned when we look at the history of Derby winners!

In 1970, Nijinsky stunned crowds by becoming the Triple Crown winner, having already been victorious in the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket Racecourse and St Leger Stakes at Doncaster.

Assisted by legendary jockey Lester Piggott, he beat Sea Bird’s son Gyr and recorded the fastest finishing time in over 60 years. Nijinksy was the first horse to achieve the Triple Crown feat in 35 years and remains the last horse to do so to this very day.

1981 Epsom Derby Winner – Shergar

One of the most iconic Derby wins in the event’s history was Shergar’s 1981 victory.

He blitzed the field under then-teenage jockey Walter Swinburn, breaking away from the pack to bring it home by ten lengths! Swinburn described the win to be “like a fairytale”, adding:

“To be honest, anyone could have ridden Shergar. As we came round Tattenham Corner, I had to pinch myself. I never had an easier winner.”

1981 was a winning year for Shergar, who claimed the crown at Guardian Newspaper Classic Trial, Chester Vase, Derby Stakes, Irish Sweeps Derby, King George VI, and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes.

Sadly, he never had the chance to add more fortune to his racing career as he was kidnapped two years later.

2001 Epsom Derby Winner – Galileo

Champion sire of Britain and Ireland, Galileo – whose offspring include the mighty Frankel, New Approach and Japan – secured a triumphant Derby win in 2001, beating rival Golan in what can only be described as a nail-biting duel.

Galileo made his name on the sport’s biggest stage, going full speed ahead to claim the victory by three and a half lengths. While his son Frankel’s career might overshadow his exploits, Galileo’s a top-class horse in his own right and has done a lot for the sport.

2007 Epsom Derby Winner – Authorized

Top jockey Frankie Dettori claimed his first Epsom Derby win on bookmaker favourite, Authorized, who freewheeled down the famous Tattenham Hill and romped up the straight to take it home by five lengths.

It was Dettori’s 15th attempt at winning the race, and the Italian celebrated with his signature leap off of the colt. He experienced victory again in 2015 on Golden Horn.

2011 Epsom Derby Winner – Pour Moi

Pour Moi’s victory alongside 19-year-old jockey Mickaël Barzalona is a standout moment in the Epsom Derby winners timeline. Struggling to take the lead for the majority of the race, Pour Moi miraculously burst forth during the final furlong and romped to last-gasp success.

Barzalona celebrated emphatically, standing up in the irons three strides before he had even crossed the finish line!

Epsom Derby Festival Hospitality Guests

When is the Epsom Derby Festival 2024?

The Epsom Derby Festival takes place between Friday 31st May and Saturday 1st June 2024.

As tradition goes, the Derby Festival opens with Ladies Day, which sees both men and women adorn their finest attire in a bid to claim the Style Award. Meanwhile, day two of the Festival – Epsom Derby Day – is one of the most anticipated race days in the flat racing calendar.

We look forward to welcoming our clients to Epsom Downs Racecourse in 2024 to enjoy racing’s most spectacular carnival.

If you want to be part of this historic meeting, visit our Epsom Derby hospitality page to view the full range of hospitality packages we offer. As Official Hospitality Suppliers for Epsom Downs Racecourse, you can book your Derby Day hospitality packages with confidence and enjoy a day or two at the races in VIP style.

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