Every June, the culmination of four years of meticulous planning and dreams come to fruition for one thoroughbred racehorse, while those of countless others fall by the wayside.
The Epsom Derby is the race to win, coveted and feted around the world; it is the route to instant stardom for the winning horse and the strongest support in the stallion barns thereafter.
Raced on the unique contours of Epsom Downs, the Investec Derby Stakes is of course a Group 1 contest and forms the second leg of the colt’s Triple Crown, although the mile and a half contest is also open to fillies.
The race remains the pinnacle of any racehorse’s career and is Britain’s richest horse race, and the most prestigious of the five Classics. It is sometimes referred to as the “Blue Riband” of the turf.
The Derby originated at a celebration following the first running of the Oaks Stakes in 1779. A new race was planned, and it was decided that it should be named after either the host of the party, the 12th Earl of Derby, or one of his guests, Sir Charles Bunbury.
Legend has it that a coin toss decided the outcome and hence the Derby takes place at Epsom Downs, while the Bunbury Cup is run on Newmarket’s July Course every July.
The very first Derby was actually run on Thursday 4 May 1780 and went to Diomed, ironically owned by Sir Charles Bunbury, who collected prize money of £1,065 15s. Diomed is to this day commemorated in the Diomed Stakes, raced at Epsom on Derby Day.
The first four runnings of the Derby took place over a mile before the race was extended to a mile and a half in 1784 and the distance has remained the same ever since.
The starting point of the race was moved twice during the 19th century. The first move, suggested by Lord George Bentinck, was in 1848, and the second was in 1872. It was discovered in 1991 that the exact length of the race was one mile, four furlongs and 10 yards.
Initially the Derby was run on a Thursday in late May or early June depending on when Easter occurred. In 1838 the race was moved to a Wednesday to fit in with the railways’s time tables, but was still run on different dates depending on Easter.
However, from the start of the 20th Century Derby Day was set in stone as the first Wednesday in June, apart from: 1915 to 1918, (during the First World War) when it was on a Tuesday; during the Second World War, from 1942 until 1945 the race was run on a Saturday as it was in the post war years of 1947 to 1950 and again in 1953.
That all changed in 1995, when market forces suggested that commercially the race would benefit from taking place on a Saturday, when fewer people were at work and more could watch or bet on the race.
From 1915 to 1918 and from 1940 to 1945 the Derby was run at Newmarket. These races are known as the ‘New Derby’.
The race has of course been won by many of the all-time great horses in racing history. Plenty more have met with defeat in this race.
Among the 19th century champions were Voltigeur in 1850 and Western Australian 1853, while Gladiateur won in 1865. Harvester and St Gatien dead-heated in 1884 and two years later the great Ormonde won the race. Persimmon landed the 1894 renewal.
Robert Robson trained an incredible 7 winners of the race: Waxy (1793), Tyrant (1802), Pope (1809), Whalebone (1810), Whisker (1815), Azor (1817), Emilius (1823) and the 19th Century also saw John Porter excel, as he too sent out 7 Derby winners: Blue Gown (1868), Shotover (1882), St. Blaise (1883), Ormonde (1886), Sainfoin (1890), Common (1891), Flying Fox (1899).
The great Fred Darling repeated this feat in the first half of the 20th Century: Captain Cuttle (1922), Manna (1925), Coronach (1926), Cameronian (1931), Bois Roussel (1938), Pont l’Eveque (1940), Owen Tudor (1941).
The 1900s began with victory for Diamond Jubilee, while Ard Patrick won in 1902 and Rock Sand was victorious the following year – those two colts would meet in a memorable Eclipse Stakes.
Drama occurred in 1913 when the Suffragete Emily Davison threw herself in front of King George V’s horse Anmer and brought the horse and rider down. She later died in hospital.
Another kind of tragedy unfolded around the 1921 Derby hero Humorist, who was owned by the famous Joel family. Just three weeks after his Epsom triumph Humorist was found dead in his stable and it was discovered he had suffered from chronic tuberculosis and effectively won the Derby with only one lung working.
In 1930 Blenheim ushered in a glorious era for the Derby. The mighty Hyperion won the race in 1933 and was followed by Windsor Lad, Bahram and Mahmoud in an era when the crowds flocked to Epsom Downs in vast swathes to have their fortunes told in the centre of the track or to listen to the exclamations of Prince Monolulu as he shouted “I gotta horse!” The decade ended with Blue Peter adding the Epsom Derby to his 2,000 Guineas success however the onset of war prevented him from an attempt at the Triple Crown in the St Leger.
Despite World War II, some outstanding horses won the Derby including Dante, the last northern trained winner of the race, in 1945. Nimbus was another to pull off the Guineas/Derby double but was then injured and missed the St Leger.
Tulyar was a famous winner in 1952 and the following year the legendary jockey Sir Gordon Richards finally won the Derby at the 28th attempt, having announced 1953 would be his final season riding. He famously beat the Queen’s runner Aureole in Coronation year!
In 1954 Richards’ successor won the first of an unprecedented nine Derbies as Lester Piggott rode Never Say Die to glory. Crepello gave Piggott a second victory in 1957 and was trained by the great Sir Noel Murless. The horse had tendon problems which limited him to two runs that year – and he won both the Guineas and the Derby.
St Paddy heralded the arrival of the 1960s and gave Piggott his third win in the race. Two years later Larkspur gave Dr Vincent O’Brien the first of his six wins in the Derby, albeit in sad circumstances. There was a pile-up that year which saw seven horses fall or brought down, including the favourite Hethersett.
Relko was a French winner the following year and then Christmas came in June in 1964 as Santa Claus ran out the unseasonal winner.
But 1965 saw the arrival at Epsom of one of the all-time greats in the shape of Sea Bird II, who won the race on the bridle from a future Irish Derby winner in Meadowcourt and went on to beat one of the greatest Arc de Triomphe fields ever assembled with a staggering performance.
Charlottown won the following season and had been trained as a two year old by Towser Gosden, father of John Gosden, before health issues sadly forced the trainer to retire. Gordon Smyth took up the reigns with Charlottown and the colt duly won his Derby with a daring late challenge.
Royal Palace revived the fortunes of the Joel family in the race some 46 years after Humorist, having already won the 2,000 Guineas.
Then in 1968 Lester Piggott and Dr Vincent O’Brien combined to create an irresistible force which would last a decade. Their opening Epsom salvo came with the brilliant burst of speed from Sir Ivor who won major races in four countries including the 2,000 Guineas, Derby and Washington DC International Stakes.
Blakeney won the race in 1969 and gained some compensation for his sire, the luckless 1962 faller Hethersett. Both horses were named after locations in Norfolk.
Blakeney stayed in training as a four year old and met the 1970 Derby winner but was comprehensively beaten; little wonder as that colt was the imperious Nijinsky. As brilliant as Sir Ivor had been, Nijinsky was a hard act to top. Unbeaten going into the 2,000 Guineas, Dr Vincent O’Brien’s colt sauntered to victory and at Epsom Lester Piggott was able to quicken when he wanted with explosive effect. Nijinsky went on to land the Irish Derby and then recorded his facile victory over Blakeney, before winning the St Leger to become the first Triple Crown winner in 35 years. No colt has achieved this feat since.
Remarkably another colt of a rare vintage landed the following year’s race as little Mill Reef made amends for his 2,000 Guineas defeat at the hands of Brigadier Gerard. In fact the Derby was the start of Mill Reef’s glorious run and he was never defeated again, winning an Eclipse Stakes, King George VI Stakes, Arc de Triomphe, Prix Ganay and Coronation Cup in a glittering career.
In 1972 there was a pulsating race with Lester Piggott virtually lifting Dr O’Brien’s colt Roberto over the line inches ahead of future Arc winner Rheingold. Roberto would prove himself a history maker later in the year by inflicting the only defeat of Brigadier Gerard’s career.
After Morston had maintained the Norfolk link to Epsom Derby success that Blakeney had begun, came Snow Knight in 1974.
A year later there was another big name from the post-war years, as young Pat Eddery rode Grundy to success in 1975. The colt would later win the ultimate battle with Bustino in the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes that was simply labelled “The Race Of The Century”.
Empery and Lester Piggott triumphed in 1976 and then the flashy chestnut with unfashionable white socks called The Minstrel, confounded the critics and delivered Piggott’s eighth win in the race and Dr O’Brien’s fifth.
The Minstrel raced in the colours of the latest major owner in the sport Robert Sangster – and Sangster went close the following year when American rider Willie Shoemaker was just denied victory on Hawaiian Sound by Greville Starkey and Shirley Heights.
1979 saw the 200th running of the great race and a vintage performance by Troy and Willie Carson, who appeared to be trapped halfway down the large field, with no chance as the field turned around Tattenham Corner. However Carson was able to ease Troy to the outside and he fairly flew home to win by an astounding 7 lengths, before winning the Irish Derby, King George and Benson and Hedges Gold Cup. Another outstanding Derby winner.
Troy was trained by Major Dick Hern and he and Carson won a second consecutive Derby in 1980 thanks to the incredibly brave Henbit, who fractured a leg in the final furlong and finished virtually on three legs but still prevailed over Master Willie.
That 1980 renewal had delivered a tight finish but the exact opposite demonstrated the sheer brilliance of the extraordinary 1981 Derby here Shergar. Ridden by 19 year old Walter Swinburn, the colt took the lead early in the home straight and pulled further and further clear of his rivals, eventually easing down and still winning by a record 10 lengths. He was equally impressive in the Irish Derby before beating the older horses in the King George.
In 1982 Dr O’Brien’s final Epsom Derby winner was crowned when the giant Golden Fleece produced an impressive turn of foot to beat subsequent St Leger winner Touching Wood. Sadly Golden Fleece never raced again and retired undefeated.
The year after soft ground did not deter a massive field but it was that man Piggott, who again held all the aces as Teenoso stormed to victory to give his jockey a record-breaking ninth triumph in the Blue Riband.
Dr O’Brien arguably should have had a seventh winner of the great race in 1984. His unbeaten colt El Gran Senor had brilliantly won an exceptional renewal of the 2,000 Guineas and was hot favourite for Epsom despite stamina doubts. Class got the colt – who had a reputation for pulling himself up when he got to the front in his races, to the front with a quarter of a mile to race, despite his jockey Pat Eddery trying to hold on to him. The inevitable happened and a challenger in the shape of Secreto emerged and just edged the verdict in an epic battle throughout the final furlong. Some reports suggest that defeat wiped £40 million off the value of El Gran Senor. In 1984. But that wasn’t the story here. For whilst Dr O’Brien had seen his equine pride and joy defeated, he felt immense pride and joy for his son David, who happened to train Secreto.
Another legendary trainer finally added his name to the Derby roll of honour in 1985, as Sir Henry Cecil’s Slip Anchor, under an inspired front-running ride by popular American jockey Steve Cauthen, routed his rivals.
Two years after Guineas’ winner El Gran Senor lost his unbeaten record at Epsom narrowly and controversially, a similar scenario unfolded in 1986. Dancing Brave can lay claim to be one of the greatest of them all, as victories in the 2,000 Guineas, Eclipse Stakes, King George and Arc de Triomphe all testify.
However, Epsom’s one and only opportunity for the umpteenth time proved tantalising. Again there were stamina doubts and Greville Starkey found himself further back than he wanted entering the home straight, partly because Dancing Brave was unbalanced racing down the hill into Tattenham Corner. Up front Shahrastani was many lengths clear of the favourite and not stopping. Starkey pulled Dancing Brave to the wide outside and with the entire field to pass he began to stoke the fires which had produced an exhilarating burst of speed at Newmarket. Again Dancing Brave quickened in a manner rarely witnessed by the naked eye. He poured it on down that long Epsom home straight and Shahrastani’s lead was diminishing with every stride. But the line came too soon. The record books show that Shahrastani won that 1986 Derby – and went on to win the Irish equivalent too. Dancing Brave beat his rival on both subsequent meetings, easily. But on the day it mattered most, he didn’t.
In 1987 the Cecil-Cauthen partnership combined for another bold front-running Derby victory and although Reference Point’s success was less spectacular than Slip Anchor’s, it was none the less a brave effort by an outstanding colt who would later win the King George and St Leger.
In 1988 Kahyasi came with a late run to give trainer Luca Cumani and jockey Ray Cochrane a first Derby success in the Aga Khan’s second colours – those of his father’s, the former Prince Ally Khan, who had been successful much earlier in the century.
A decade after Troy’s Derby romp, Major Hern and Willie Carson were back with an exciting, unbeaten, giant striding colt called Nashwan. Having won the Guineas on his seasonal return, Nashwan was simply imperious at Epsom and lengthened away from Terimon with great ease.
Quest For Fame landed the 1990 renewal, beating Blue Stag on a rainy afternoon and then in 1991 Generous began a glorious summer with a 5 length success over Marju. He would dominate the summer months, beating Suave Dancer the French Derby winner in the Irish equivalent before turning the King George into a procession. Suave Dancer would get his revenge in the Arc however.
Dr Devious came with a late run to win the race in 1992 and had a rather different preparation to previous winners. Having won the Dewhurst Stakes as a juvenile, he ran in the Craven Stakes and then headed to Churchill Downs where he ran well but unplaced in the Kentucky Derby.
In 1993 Sir Hendry Cecil trained his third winner as Commander In Chief gave Dancing Brave a Derby winner. Unraced at two, Commander In Chief gained valuable experience that spring and defeated his stable mate Tenby, who had been the hot favourite for the race.
Willie Carson won his fourth Epsom Derby in 1994 when Erhaab brilliantly weaved his way through a huge field to beat subsequent King George winner King’s Theatre. A year later Lammtarra was an extraordinary winner.
That 1995 renewal was the first to be run on a Saturday in the present arrangement. Lammtarra had only run once before in his life, the previous summer when he won at Newbury for trainer Alex Scott. His trainer was tragically murdered in the autumn of 1994 while the horse himself fell sick and very nearly died in the New Year whilst in Dubai. Slowly Lammtarra got better but went to Epsom without a run. In the race he was a long way back as the field turned into the home straight but absolutely flew as Walter Swinburn asked him for his effort, swopping late to defeat Tamure and going away at the line. He proved a remarkable horse who went on to win the King George at Ascot and then the Arc in an undefeated four race career.
A year later the colt Shaamit delivered victory for William Haggas and jockey Michael Hills. In 1997 John Gosden made amends for his father’s ill-fortune in not training winner Charlottown at the time of his Epsom triumph, by landing the race with Benny The Dip. In a thrilling race Benny The Dip narrowly denied subsequent Derby winner Silver Patriach.
In 1998 French jockey Olivier Peslier brought High Rise with a late run to land a second Derby for trainer Luca Cumani.
The 20th Century closed with Oath winning a fourth Derby for Sir Henry Cecil and a first for the leading jockey of the time Kieren Fallon. Oath was subsequently injured but tasted Epsom success at the expense of the outstanding Dubai Millennium.
The year 2000 saw the Aga Khan’s colours again carried to success for a fourth time as Sinndar beat Sakhee and Beat Hollow in a vintage renewal. Sinndar helped to kick-start jockey Johnny Murtagh’s long and success run in the big races and the colt proved outstanding as he won the Irish Derby, Prix Niel and Arc de Triomphe, in which he beat the brilliant Montjeu.
Another outstanding Irish colt delivered in 2001 as Galileo strolled to victory for Aidan O’Brien and jockey Mick Kinane (who had ridden Commander In Chief eight years earlier). Galileo again went on to great things, winning the Irish Derby and then destroying a top class field in the King George. He remains an outstanding stallion at Coolmore.
O’Brien’s second Derby was not long coming as he followed-up in 2002 with High Chaparral, with Murtagh on board, who beat stable mate Hawk Wing. For the third year running the Epsom winner prevailed in the Irish Derby and this top class horse would later win back-to-back Breeders’ Cup Turf races before going on to a successful stud career.
Kieren Fallon was back on top in 2003 and rode the Sir Michael Stoute colt Kris Kin to victory, just denying Pat Eddery and The Great Gatsby a famous success on his final Derby mount. Fallon was back in the winners’ circle again the following year aboard North Light who gave Sir Michael Stoute his fourth Derby victory.
In 2005 the power of syndicate ownership came to the fore at Epsom when the Michael Bell trained Motivator romped to an impressive success giving Johnny Murtagh a third Derby winner.
The 2006 Epsom Derby had a pulsating finish and a four-way photo but Sir Percy, the Guineas runner-up prevailed. The ever-popular Frankie Dettori finally broke his Derby curse in 2007 at the 15th attempt, when Authorised burst clear of his field also giving trainer Peter Chapple-Hyam a second success following Dr Devious in 1992.
The Irish challenge was particularly strong in 2008 when the top class juvenile New Approach atoned for two narrow Guineas misses with a late burst of speed against the running rails to land the Derby. The colt was a late confirmation for the race but under trainer Jim Bolger’s expert care he would land the Irish Champion Stakes and then memorably the Champion Stakes by a scintillating 8 lengths.
A year later came another exceptional winner as the oh so smooth Sea The Stars lead an Irish invasion to Epsom Downs. In the Derby Aidan O’Brien tested the 2,000 Guineas winner with his unbeaten colt Fame And Glory and the highly-touted Rip Van Winkle but the result was still the same as Sea The Stars continued on his inexorable progress that would see him also land the Eclipse Stakes, Juddmonte International Stakes, Irish Champion Stakes and Arc de Triomphe in an outstanding career.
Sea The Stars never won his races by far but was always on top. In 2010 there was a Derby of a very different vintage as the lightly-raced Workforce won the Derby on just his third start, delivering a fifth win in the race for trainer Sir Michael Stoute and a first Derby for Champion Jockey Ryan Moore. The colt also ended the curse of beaten horses from the Dante, for Workforce had finished second at York to Cape Blanco but physically blossomed thereafter and won his Derby by 7 lengths in a course record time.
The 2011 renewal gave the public genuine hope of a Royal winner as the Queen’s Carlton House had won the previous month’s Dante Stakes and was a warm order for the Classic. However the race announced the arrival of an exciting young riding talent as Mickael Barzalona rode Pour Moi for the outstanding French trainer Andre Fabre who had never won the Derby. The cool 19 year old jockey settled the horse in last place and still had many lengths to make up at the furlong pole but was delivered with real confidence and stormed past his rivals, with his jockey standing up and celebrating in the saddle as the partnership passed the post just a head in front of subsequent Irish Derby winner Treasure Beach.
After Camelot had won the 2012 renewal of the 2,000 Guineas for Aidan O’Brien, there were real hopes that he might go on to record a Triple Crown after the long wait since Nijinsky’s triumphs of 1970. Certainly on breeding Camelot had a chance and he duly won the Epsom Derby in dominant fashion, earning him high praise. He retained his unbeaten record with another win in the Irish Derby but was then out-battled by Encke in the St Leger.
The 2013 renewal saw a fourth success for Aidan O’Brien as the Ryan Moore ridden Ruler Of The World just held off Libertarian in another exciting finish. The son of Galileo was having just his third career start and had made his racecourse less than two months earlier.
The Ballydoyle maestro broke new ground in 2014 when Australia beat Kingston Hill to make him the only trainer to win the Derby in three successive years. Once again, Galileo proved the winning sire, while Oak winner Ouija Board was his dam.
The 2015 Investec Derby saw another terrific chapter written as the hitherto unbeaten Golden Horn beat his stable mate Jack Hobbs in a one-two for trainer John Gosden. The son of Cape Cross was written by the enigmatic Frankie Dettori and went on to confirm himself an outstanding colt, with subsequent victories in the Eclipse Stakes, Irish Champion Stakes and Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.
In 2016, the Irish re-claimed their recent grip on the Derby when the Dermot Weld-trained Harzand landed the prize. It was a fifth victory in the race for the Aga Khan and a first success for multiple Irish Champion Jockey Pat Smullen. Harzand would follow-up in the Irish Derby.
2017 saw trainer Aidan O’Brien land his sixth Epsom Derby, but there was a surprise, as the relatively unconsidered Wings Of Eagles beat his more fancied stable mate Cliffs Of Moher and Cracksman, under a fine ride from Padraig Beggy.
Sadly Wings Of Eagles was injured when coming home third in the Irish Derby and did not race again.
The Derby has thrown up all kinds of drama throughout its history; who knows what awaits on those famous Epsom Downs this year?
List of Epsom Derby Winners:
Sir Peter Teazle
Colt by Fidget
John Singleton, Jr.
Sam Chifney, Jr.
Sam Chifney, Jr.
The Merry Monarch
Pyrrhus The First
The Flying Dutchman
John Osborne, Jr.
Tom Cannon, Sr.
April the Fifth
Sir Gordon Richards
Never Say Die
Quest for Fame
Commander in Chief
Benny the Dip
Sea the Stars
Ruler of the World
Wings Of Eagle