‘Heads it is!’ How the toss of a coin defined the Epsom Derby
Michael Church, the official Epsom Derby historian, reveals how the Derby came to be and why it is still the world's greatest flat race.
‘Although Lord Derby won the toss of the coin, it was Sir Charles Bunbury that owned the first winner’
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The spark that ignited the first Derby came from a house party which was given by Lord Derby.
It was suggested that after the success of the inaugural Oaks for three your old fillies over a mile and a half, there should be a similar race for three year old colts and fillies, this time to be run over the last mile of the Orbicular course.
These races were considered ground-breaking events, since almost all races at that time were run over two or four-mile heats, where a horse had to win two heats to collect the prize. But what should they call it?
Now, while there are no details in the archives at Knowsley concerning the foundation of the Derby, history has passed on the tale that the twelfth Earl of Derby and Sir Charles Bunbury, the leading figure in the Jockey Club who was staying at the Oaks that weekend, spun a coin as to whether the new race should be called the Derby Stakes, or the Bunbury Stakes.
And so the shout was: “Heads it is!” So it’s “The Derby”, the Derby Stakes.
The first running of the Derby Stakes was on Thursday 4 May 1780. There were nine runners and although Lord Derby won the toss of the coin, it was Sir Charles Bunbury that owned the first winner, which was Diomed, the 6-4 favourite.
Four years later the Derby distance was extended to a mile and a half to match the Oaks, and run over the same course.
Towards the end of the 18 century, Derby day established itself as the Londoners’ day out. Thousands travelling from London by foot or carriage, with or without their employers’ consent.
The Derby was now racing’s jewel in the crown, with Lord Derby Sir Peter Teasel the best winner of the 18th century, winning 13 races and siring 10 classic winners, while a century later, in 1886, the great Ormond, unbeaten in 16 races, including the Triple Crown, was heralded the greatest Derby winner of the 19th century.
Now, while the crowds grew, from a few thousand to 750,000 in 1895, and a similar number in 1953 for the coronation Derby, the fascination of Derby day has attracted the aristocracy and workmen, equally, shoulder to shoulder for the day. The flow of ready money proving a magnet for both in pursuit of a good time.
Fortune tellers, fairground rides, boxers, strippers, sword swallowers and escapologists have all entertained the crowds, while if you avoided losing your money on the card and dice games, there was always a good supply of meat pies and real ales.
And what of riding the course? Gordon Richards, who rode in the Derby 28 times, always said it was the supreme test of the thoroughbred. A horse needs to be nimble and well-balanced. First you move right, then you turn left, uphill then downhill, and then finally when the horses are tiring you go uphill again. This is not a race for the faint-hearted.
Now, when you look back, who could have predicted the Derby would provide an uninterrupted line of winners extending over more than two and a quarter centuries and through two world wars.
And today, as it has always been, the Derby is the race that every owner, trainer and jockey want to win the most.
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