Although there are no details in the archives concerning the foundation of the Derby, history has passed on the tale that the 12th Earl of Derby and Sir Charles Bunbury (the “perpetual president” of the Jockey Club, who was a guest at Lord Derby’s house, itself called The Oaks) spun a coin as to whether the race should be called the Derby Stakes or the Bunbury Stakes.
The first running of the Derby Stakes on Thursday, 4 May 1780, was open to three-year-old colts (8st 0lb) and fillies (7st 11lb), at 50 guineas each, run over a mile. There were nine runners, and although Lord Derby won the toss of the coin, it was Sir Charles Bunbury who owned the first winner – Diomed, the 6-4 favourite. Note: The Derby distance was extended to a mile and a half from 1784.
Towards the end of the 18th century, Derby Day had established itself as not only a major sporting event, but also “the Londoners’ day out”, with or without their employers’ consent.
In 1793, The Times cynically reported:
“The road to Epsom was crowded with all descriptions of people hurrying to the races; some to plunder and some to be plundered. Horses, gigs, curricles, coaches, chaises, carts and pedestrians covered with dust crowded the Downs, the people running down and jostling each other as they met in contact. Hazard, cockfighting, E.O. and faro assisted in plucking the pigeons, and the rooks feathered their nests with the plunder.”
The fascination of Derby Day attracted the aristocracy and the workman equally, shoulder to shoulder for the day, and the flow of ready money proved a magnet to both while in pursuit of a good time.
Racing professionals, old enough to have seen the 1965 Derby, would almost certainly name Sea-Bird as the best Derby winner of the 20th century. Seldom had the race been won with such complete, almost contemptuous authority and his brilliant victory later in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe confirmed his status.
Of the many other famous Derby winners since then, probably Nijinsky, winner of the Triple Crown in 1970, would be high on most lists. In 1971 Mill Reef, with Geoff Lewis aboard, won the Derby, Eclipse Stakes, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes and the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. Of course names like Troy, Golden Fleece and Shegar are know around the world.
A Derby winner needs not only a great horse but also a great jockey like Gordon Richards who won the Coronation Derby in 1953 on Pinza, with the new Queen horse in second place. Willie Carson won the Derby for the first time on the brilliant colt Troy in the 200th running of the Derby Epsom in 1979 and also won on Henbit (1980), Nashwan (1989) and Erhaab (1994).
But the King of The Derby has to be Lester Piggott who won his first Derby on Never Say Die in 1954 aged 18 years and went on to win eight more, on Crepello (1957), St. Paddy (1960), Sir Ivor (1968), Nijinsky (1970), Roberto (1972), Empery (1976), The Minstrel (1977) and Teenoso (1983).