Epsom Downs racecourse hosts two of the biggest races of the season as they stage the historic Derby and Oaks.
The two-day meeting, held on a Friday and Saturday, is headlined by the third and fourth English Classics of the flat racing season, which are the premier middle distance races for members of the Classic generation and both are set up to be excellent renewals.
Normally run in late May or early June, the Friday plays host to the Epsom Oaks and the Coronation Cup whilst the Epsom Derby takes place on the Saturday.
Ladies Day Races (Friday)
|2:00||Woodcote British EBF Stakes||Class 2||6f|
|2:35||Egmont Handicap||Class 2||1m½f|
|3:10||Coronation Cup||Group 1||1m4f|
|3:45||Betfred Handicap||Class 2||1m2f|
|4:30||Betfred Oaks||Group 1||1m4f|
|5:45||Derby Festival Handicap||Class 2||7f|
Derby Day Races (Saturday)
|12:50||Betfred Diomed Stakes||Group 3||1m½f|
|1:30||Betfred Derby||Group 1||1m4f|
|2:10||Princess Elizabeth Stakes||Group 3||1m½f|
|2:45||3YO “Dash” Handicap||Class 3||5f|
|3:20||Epsom “Dash” Handicap||Class 2||5f|
|3:55||Ebbisham Handicap||Class 2||1m2f|
|4:30||Northern Dancer Handicap||Class 2||1m4f|
|5:05||JRA Tokyo Trophy Handicap||Class 2||6f|
About the Derby Festival
The Derby Festival is a two day meeting at Epsom Downs containing both the Derby and the Oaks. The big races are the third and fourth Classics respectively of the flat racing season and are always highly anticipated contests. Both the Derby and the Oaks are held over a mile and a half and open to three-year-olds but only fillies are eligible for the latter.
The prize funds available for the Derby (£1.5 million in 2018) and the Oaks (£500,000 in 2018) show their importance but there are also some cracking races elsewhere on the cards of the Derby Festival. These include other Group races and other competitive races which often leave punters scratching their heads.
The Derby is the fourth British Classic of the year. It’s a Group 1 contest which is run over a distance of one mile and four furlongs and has spurned similar races all over the world. The Derby run at Epsom is the very much the original though and its roots stretch all the way back to 1780. In that time it’s been open to the leading colts and fillies but it’s the colts who have dominated and some of the greatest horses of all time have claimed this prize including Nijinsky, Shergar, Galileo, Sea The Stars and Camelot.
Much like the Oaks, stamina is incredibly important when trying to pick the winner of the Derby. Even those colts who come into the Derby from the 2000 Guineas had a certain amount of stamina in their breeding. It’s not the be all and end all though as the 2018 favourite, Saxon Warrior, showed when he looked too one-paced to get the win and finished in fourth place almost five lengths back from the winner, Masar.
Traditionally, Derby winners have tended to come from the top three in the betting. That has changed a little recently with Wings of Eagles (40/1) and Masar (16/1) making life tougher for punters. It does make sense to focus on horses who are trained by the bigger named trainers with Aidan O’Brien, Sir Michael Stoute both claiming multiple wins since the turn of the millennium as well as wins for John Gosden, Charlie Appleby and Jim Bolger.
The Oaks is the second Classic of the British Flat racing season that is exclusively for fillies. Like the other four Classics, the Oaks is a historic Group 1 event (it was first run in 1779) which is open only to three-year-olds. It also forms part of the Fillies’ Triple Crown alongside the 1000 Guineas and the St Leger but no horse has won all three races since the remarkable Oh So Sharp back in 1985.
Recent renewals of the Oaks don’t suggest that it’s going to change any time soon. In fact, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for leading fillies to make the step up from the one mile trip of the 1000 Guineas to the one mile, four furlongs of the Oaks. It is very rare for a filly to win the Oaks having not at least attempted a race over at least a mile and two furlongs.
Punters are wising up to the increasing importance of proven stamina over and above out and out class but the Oaks is still proving to be a tough betting puzzle to unpick. Winning favourites are a rarity whilst a lack of previous Group 1 experience is no barrier to success in the Oaks. The form out of the 1000 Guineas is becoming less important and moreover there is no single race that is particularly illuminating for punters.
Aidan O’Brien hasn’t got to the very top as a trainer without the ability to spot trends before others. He was one of the first to understand the importance of stamina which is one of the main reasons his record in the Oaks is only improving. O’Brien trained four Oaks winners between 2012 to 2018 but he has a lot of work to do to close the gap with the winning most Oaks trainer, Robert Robson who had 13 winners between 1802 and 1825.
Other Key Races
Away from the two Classics, the Coronation Cup is probably the most prestigious race of the Derby Festival. Held on Ladies’ Day, the Coronation Cup is a Group 1 for older horses run over a distance of a mile and four furlongs. It’s a historic race which has been run since 1902 so there is a huge number of statistics and trends for punters to pour through.
One of the most important things to note is that the Coronation Cup tends to be contested by small fields. That has the result of providing many winning favourites although it does have a habit of throwing up some shock winners. Aidan O’Brien is the trainer to follow whilst many big name jockeys have enjoyed success including the legendary Lester Piggott who rode the Coronation Cup winner nine times.
The Surrey Stakes is a seven furlong race which has formed part of the Derby Festival since 1995. As a Listed race it may be well below the level of either the Derby or the Oaks but the Surrey Stakes is still an important race for three-year-olds who excel over shorter trips.
Many of the previous winners have had a busy season already before arriving at Epsom but the unpredictable nature of three-year-olds, especially over these shorter distances, makes this a tough race to predict.
The Diomed Stakes is a Group 3 which is named after the first winner of the Derby at Epsom. It’s run over a mile and 113 yards and is one of the first chances for three-year-olds to take on their elders. It’s an important part of the second day of the Derby Festival and trends to produce intriguing betting markets.
It is very rare for one of the younger cohort to win this race. That’s because the pick of the three-year-olds tend to compete in the Classics and those who are still improving find it tough to get the better of their more experienced rivals.
Princess Elizabeth Stakes
The Princess Elizabeth Stakes is the fillies and mares equivalent of the Diomed Stakes. It’s run over the exact same distance of a mile and 113 yards and is a Group 3 open to three-year-olds and older.
Three-year-old fillies have a better record in this than the younger colts do at the Diomed Stakes but it’s still the older mares who have the stronger record. The Princess Elizabeth Stakes has been won by big name jockeys in the last 15 years including multiple wins for Frankie Dettori, Silvestre de Sousa and James Doyle.
The five Classics of the British Flat racing season are some of the most historic contest in all of races. The St Leger is the oldest of the lot followed by the Oaks which was first run in 1779 and then the Derby which was inaugurated just one year later. Both the Oaks and the Derby remain two of the most important races in the sport but it’s the Derby which attracts the most attention and carries the biggest prize in British racing.
The Derby (often known as the Epsom Derby so as to differentiate it from races such as the Kentucky Derby) has a worldwide audience and punters’ preparations begin at least a year in advance as many previous winners have shown glimpses of what is to come when running as two-year-olds. The race was named after the 12th Earl of Derby who was hosting a party after the first Oaks at which the idea for the Derby was conceived. In all but four renewals, the Derby has been held over a mile and a half and it’s always been at Epsom Downs save for five years during World War II when it was temporarily moved to Newmarket.
Just like the Derby, the Oaks was the brainchild of guests at a party and has also gone on to inspire multiple races around the world. It’s also been held at Epsom apart from during the two World Wars. Some of the best fillies of all time have won the Oaks including Oh So Sharp and Ouija Board.
Both the Derby and the Oaks play the role of the second leg of the British Triple Crown for both colts and fillies. It is very rare for horses to even attempt the Triple Crown given how demanding it is and the increasingly specialist nature of the different Classics.
A Complete History of the Epsom Derby Festival
Although it’s hard to say exactly when the Derby Festival truly first began, many of the races that form part of it have been gracing Epsom’s turf for a quite some time. Not least, of course, The Derby and The Oaks themselves, which for centuries have stood as two of the country’s most treasured events. Few races boast a history as long as these two Classics and even fewer ones that are anywhere near as illustrious or enthralling, as you’ll soon find out.
This meeting is technically known as the “Derby Festival”, or for sponsorship purposes (at the time of writing) the Investec Derby Festival. However, the fillies’ Classic, The Oaks, takes almost equal billing and, as we shall see, actually pre-dates The Derby.
1779 – The Oaks begins
It might not be the biggest of Epsom’s two Classics but the Oaks is unquestionably the oldest, founded in the summer of ’79. It gets its name from an estate close by to Epsom, leased to Edward Smith-Stanley, the 12th Earl of Derby. The Earl himself had a major part in the event’s creation as he devised the plan alongside invited guests at a party. He no doubt would’ve been pleased with his decision as it was his horse, Bridget, who won the inaugural running.
1780 – And The Derby follows
During an Oaks celebration event, a suggestion was raised to hold a new race at Epsom the following year. To decide what it should be called, legend has it that the 12th Earl of Derby and Sir Charles Bunbury flipped a coin to decide, with the latter proving the lucky one. Whether this is true or not, the Earl ended up getting his way with the first Derby renewal taking place on Thursday 4th May and won by Diomed. Might The Derby perhaps be called The Bunbury in another universe?
1784 – Derby trip increased
It may seem a curious thing to us now but initially horses contested the Epsom Derby over a distance of one mile. It didn’t stay like this for long though as just four years later the race increased to its current distance of a mile and a half.
1787 – Derby wins the Derby
Edward Smith-Stanley didn’t have to wait too long before enjoying success in the race he helped shape. The keen breeder and owner was responsible for a horse by the name of Sir Peter Teazle who secured glory in the eighth running of the Derby. It proved to be his one and only success in the race although Sir Peter did go on to sire four future winners of the race.
1794 – Woodcote Stakes created
The powers that be at Epsom introduce a new race in the form of the Woodcote Stakes (initially spelled Woodcot) which took place down the final half a mile of the course. It didn’t last long at first, suspended in 1800, but it reappeared almost as quickly, making its official return in 1807.
1802 – Robson off the mark
Robert Robson, also known as the Emperor of Trainers, secures his first win in The Oaks. The Newmarket-based trainer went on to secure another 12 winners in the race across the following 23 years. His record of seven wins in The Derby has already been matched on three occasions but nobody looks like knocking him off his perch as the leading trainer in the female-only equivalent.
1825 – Sole win for Middleton
Middleton’s position in the Derby hall of fame is rather a unique one. He was the first of just two horses to have won the Classic without racing before or after it. One appearance proved enough for the horse, as it did for Amato in 1938 who sustained an injury shortly after his Epsom triumph.
1828 – Run-off called
Noting could separate Cadland and The Colonel in this running of Epsom’s most famous race, so in order to produce an outright winner, the pair were forced into a run-off. The concept may seem quite alien to us now but at the time it was an acceptable way of avoiding a dead heat. The two battled neck and neck again on the second time of asking but Cadland narrowly prevailed, winning by a half a length.
Spectators witnessed another run-off 30 years later, this time in fillies-only Classic, between Governess and Gildermire with the former able to win the rematch.
1844 – Plot to steal the Derby
As you may well know, The Derby is a race strictly for horses aged three-years-old (of either sex, although it is very rare for fillies to enter these days) but in 1844 it was actually won by a four-year-old called Maccabeus. This was made possible as an ineligible older horse competed disguised as a three-year-old called Running Rein. Fortunately the act of deception did not go unnoticed and second place finisher Orlando instead claimed the win.
1881 – US invasion begins
Iroquois, who would go on to win the St. Leger as well, became the first US-bred horse to win any leg of the British Triple Crown.
1884 – Derby dead heat
Although a run-off was used to previously settle a Derby dead head earlier in the century, this time there would be no such rematch. Harvester and St. Gatien simply shared the title and still it remains the only edition of the Derby which has two winners.
1892 – Oaks weight set
Organisers decided that nine stone should be the weight all horses carry in the Oaks. Previously the amount had fluctuated, at one point going as low as eight stone but this time the figure stuck and it’s not strayed from it ever since.
1902 – Coronation Cup begins
As a way of commemorating the coronation of King Edward VII, Epsom created this one and a half mile race. Owner of the inaugural winner, Lord Wolverton, began serving as the Vice-Chamberlain of the Household for Arthur Balfour’s government later the same year.
Our first Coronation Cup winner, Osboch, lacked much recognition but the race witnessed its first big name champion three years later. Pretty Polly, who had won the 1904 Oaks at a price of 8/100, continued her knack of winning on her Epsom return. The Fillies Triple Crown winner also won the Cup in 1906, the year of her retirement.
1913 – Derby drama
There were tragic scenes at Epsom as suffragette Emily Davison collided with the King’s horse, Amner on the Epsom turf during The Derby. Although nobody knows for sure what her purpose for going on the track was, many believe she attempted to pin King George V’s runner with a flag sporting the suffragette colours. Whatever her intentions, it led to horse, jockey and Davison crashing together with the latter immediately knocked down unconscious. After being rushed to hospital the suffragette survived for four days before succumbing to a fracture sustained at the base of her skull.
Not only did all this happen during the 1913 Derby but 6/4 favourite Craganour, owned by Charles B. Ismay, brother of the Titanic owner Joseph Bruce, found himself controversially disqualified. The stewards, who unusually lodged the official objection themselves, deemed that the initial winner had “jostled”, “bumped and bored” and “interfered” other runners. As a result, one of the horses on the receiving end of his treatment, 100/1 outsider Aboyeur, became the new Derby champion.
1914 – Last female Derby winner
Colts cannot take part in The Oaks but fillies can try their luck with the boys in The Oaks, receiving a three pound allowance if they do. It’s very rare that they enter the race nowadays and it’s been over 100 years since one managed to triumph over the opposite sex. Oaks champion Fifinella was the last to do so back in 1914, becoming only the sixth female horse to manage the feat.
1915 – Derby and Oaks move
Due to the war, both of the Epsom Classics relocated to Newmarket, staying there for the next three years. These renewals, known as the New Derby and New Oaks, marked the first time that the races were held outside of Epsom. The same situation occurred against during World War II, with Flat racing HQ stepping in again between 1940 and 1945.
1927 – BBC tunes in
The Derby had drawn in some truly gigantic crowds during the early part of 20th century but for those unable to attend, a new way of enjoying the action emerged in 1927. This was the first time the BBC offered live radio coverage of the race, although it wasn’t until 1960 when TV coverage began on both the BBC and ITV.
1940 – No Coronation Cup
Just like in 1917 and 1918, there was no running of the Coronation Cup this year due to war. The Second World War didn’t disrupt the running of the race as much as you might think though with the only other cancellation coming in 1942.
1946 – Grey day
Everyone loves a grey but The Derby’s last grey winner was all the way back in 1946 (correct ahead of the 2020 race).
1953 – Richards breaks curse
Many racing fans rightly consider Sir Gordon Richards to be one of, if not the, greatest jockey in the history of thoroughbred racing. The 26-time British Champion Jockey rode 4870 winners during an illustrious career but The Derby was a race that very nearly eluded him. On 27 occasions he failed to ride a winner in the Classic before ending the drought on the back of Pinza, a year before his retirement.
1967 – Starting stalls used
Stalls had been used as early as the 1940s in the US and Australia but too some time to reach these shores. The Jockey Club introduced them in 1965 but The Derby didn’t employ them for the first time until 1967.
1971 – Diomed Stakes inaugurated
Having won the first ever running of The Derby, few horses staked a bigger claim than Diomed for having a race named after them at Epsom. For records purposes it is seen as a brand new race although it effectively acted as a continuation of the St James’ Stakes.
1989 – Terimon produces a shock
Although he didn’t win this renewal of the Derby, Terimon’s second place finish provided enormous returns to anyone brave, or perhaps stupid, enough to back him each way. The future International Stakes winner set off at a seldom seen price of 500/1, making him the longest-odds horse ever to place in the Classic.
1989 – Aliysa stripped of title
After discovering traces of a metabolite of the banned substance camphor in Aliysa’s urine sample, the filly had her Oaks title stripped from her. Snow Bride instead became our new champion much to the fury of Aliysa’s owner, Aga Khan, who launched a long legal battle in order to challenge the disqualification. His efforts failed however as in 1992 the Court of Appeal ruled that the Jockey Club decision was not open to judicial review.
The Aga’s main grievance stemmed from his belief that the testing procedures carried out at Newmarket fell short of international standards. As a result the wealthy Iranian launched a boycott of British racing, denying racing fans the chance to see so many top thoroughbreds. However, following news of the Jockey Club’s new dope-testing procedures, Aliysa’s owner confirmed late in 1994 that he would make a British racing return the following year.
1995 – Schedule switch
For the vast bulk of the 20th century, bar a few exceptions around or during war time, The Derby took place on the first Wednesday of June. It may surprise many younger racing fans that such a big race only gained a primetime slot in 1995 when the race officially switched to the Saturday and it’s remained on the weekend ever since. The Oaks was also part of the re-shuffle that year, brought forward a day earlier from its previous Saturday slot.
1995 – Surrey Stakes & Princess Elizabeth Stakes added
As part of the Derby Festival reshuffle, the Surrey Stakes entered the fray for the very first time. Then known as the Vodacom Conditions Stakes, it changed to its present title three years later when it also received Listed status. Mick Channon’s Silca Blanka won the opening renewal with Kevin Darley on the mount.
The Princess Elizabeth Stakes also made its debut this year although its initial title was the Victress Stakes. A race honouring the monarch had existed previously at Epsom, a trial race for The Oaks, but was discontinued in 1992, a year after transferring to Kempton Park. The title of the Princess Elizabeth Stakes returned in 2001 and three years later the fillies and mares contest enjoyed promotion to Group 3 level.
2008 – Bolger’s controversial U-turn
Although connections of New Approach had entered him for The Derby, as early as April trainer Jim Bolger insisted he would skip the test in favour of the Irish equivalent. Apparently the plan was to withdraw the colt at the latest entry stage but Bolger simply forgot. There was still time to pull the horse out but the Irish trainer had a change of heart stating New Approach would indeed run if the ground was suitable. The U-turn provoked much outrage among bookies who had laid ante-post bets at long odds and among punters who had backed rival horses, and led to a much muted reception when the colt crossed the line first at odds of 5/1.
2012 – World record set
Stone of Folca sets a world record-breaking time on Epsom’s downhill straight course on her way to winning the Epsom Dash. On good to firm ground the 50/1 outsider stormed to the line, clocking a time of 53.69s. As of 2019, this time remains the fastest set over five furlongs anywhere in the world since electronic timing began. Not bad for a 50/1 shot!
2013 – St Nick secures the treble
St Nicholas Abbey cements his place in Coronation Cup history by becoming the first horse to win the race on three separate occasions. The third and final win was rarely in doubt with the 3/10 favourite holding off Melbourne Cup champion Dunaden comfortably down the run-in.
2014 – O’Brien hat-trick
Aidan O’Brien completes a truly unprecedented feat by securing his third consecutive Derby winner. He missed out on a hat-trick in 2003 but made no mistake at the second time of asking with Australia winning by a length and a quarter. On the mount of The Derby winner that day was son Aidan’s son Joseph, just as he had been in 2012. Before then the race hadn’t previously seen a winning father-son/trainer-jockey combination.
Another O’Brien entered the history books shortly after this. Ana, daughter of the Ballymore trainer, became the first female jockey in the big one to beat another runner to the line. Two others had tried before her but on both occasions they ended up finishing in last place.
2014 – De Bruyne disqualified
First past the line in the Woodcote Stakes was De Bruyne Horse but disqualification later followed after he tested positive for the human painkiller, tramadol. While also erasing the win from his record, the BHA went further and slapped Richard Hannon with an £8,000 fine as this was the fourth time in two years one of his horses had tested positive for the drug.