Epsom Downs, often referred to simply as Epsom, is one of the most famous racecourses in Britain owing to its hosting of two of the country’s five Classic races.
Home to three Group 1 races; the Coronation Cup, the Oaks and the Derby, the latter two being Classics, Epsom is a very important and unique racecourse. All three of Epsom’s Group 1’s are staged over the demanding same one-and-a-half-mile course.
Though many pay to pack the grandstands on Derby day, the course is famous for visitors also piling into the Epsom Downs themselves in the centre of the track, something that can take attendances right up to a staggering 130,000.
Epsom is closely associated with the Royal Family. While the Queen attends the Derby every year, the day also sees a dress code enforced which is similar to Royal Ascot week adding to the pomp and ceremony.
- Address – Epsom Downs Racecourse, Epsom Downs, Surrey, KT18 5LQ.
- Owner – The Jockey Club.
- TV Station – Racing TV.
- Type – Flat.
- Surface – Turf.
Epsom Downs hosts Flat racing only and, much like Aintree over the jumps, doesn’t have to host many meetings each year with the emphasis on quality rather than quantity.
There is no complete oval here. Epsom is formed of a U-shape, with the Coronation Cup, Oaks and Derby start at the one mile, four furlongs and ten yards point being the furthest point away from the stands. No races take place at a greater distance than this.
There are six-furlong and seven-furlong starts in the chutes on the downhill part of the track to the side, and a five-furlong straight course which is downhill for the first part of the race making it the fastest five-furlong track in the world.
Epsom is left-handed and undulating in nature. It has various unique features making it demanding of a racehorse.
The bends, downhill and uphill sections and pronounced camber make Epsom stand out on the racing circuit and often those features often mean that handily raced types are favoured.
Case in point; Serpentine’s unexpected and famous victory in the 2020 Derby was as a result of the entire remainder of the field allowing him an uncontested 12-length lead they simply could never pull back. Serpentine is not considered an outstanding Derby winner, yet collected the prize by some 5½ lengths at the line.
Races from five furlongs on the straight course right up to the extended mile are sharp in nature. Those ridden at or near the front almost always do well.
When considering the effect of the draw, keep in mind that although Epsom is left-handed (low numbers favoured), when the ground gets soft the runners always migrate to the stands side in the straight where the better ground is.
The Derby Course
The Derby itself is the ultimate test of a three-year-old middle-distance thoroughbred at Epsom, the reason those in the know reject out of hand calls from some quarters to move the race to Newmarket or Ascot.
The runners take a right-handed turn first, meaning low numbers are usually not favoured in the draw, and must show speed from the gate to get into a handy position.
Having expended that energy, they then take in an uphill run for around half a mile, all the while needing tactical speed to maintain what is hopefully a good racing position.
The track then levels out for a furlong or two, though when push comes to shove and the race gets going in earnest, the runners need great balance as they are then on a pronounced downhill run while taking a left-handed bend on a tough camber.
From there they still have around half a mile to go, racing down to the dip before then having to go back uphill again towards the finish which means plenty of stamina is needed.
This is hard enough for a three-year-old colt to achieve on the first Saturday in June, meaning a day earlier in the Oaks stamina in the breeding is an even more important punting point to consider for the fillies as they can find it even tougher to see out the course.
Epsom Track Analysis
Jockeys too report that balance is of the utmost importance at Epsom. Horses of all shapes, sizes and breeding can either have balance or not so some previous evidence of this is a bonus for backers.
Though very different topographically, Chester is a good pointer towards Epsom. As trainer John Gosden pointed out before Enable’s Oaks victory in 2017, she handled the tight bends of Chester very well in the Cheshire Oaks and remained balanced the whole time which was a major plus point heading to Epsom.
As Tattenham Corner approaches and the horses really get going on the downhill run, stamina is tested to the full and so horses able to stay every yard of the trip are needed despite some chatter suggesting the opposite.
Once again, Enable’s Oaks win really highlights this. She was basically upsides the odds-on favourite with only a furlong or so to go and yet eventually outstayed her rival to score by a widening five lengths.
The opposite happened to the well fancied Wild Illusion twelve months later. She led two from home and was upsides with a furlong to go, but lost out by fully 4½ lengths. Being by Dubawi, it was no surprise to see her win Group 1’s over 1¼ miles but she simply didn’t have the stamina for an Oaks.
This pattern repeats over and over, such as with subsequent 1m6f winner Anapurna winning an Oaks too.
Over the famous five furlongs, the runners absolutely tear downhill on the fasted sprint track in the world so horses again with fine balance are much preferred.
Visiting Epsom Downs
Though not in itself placed within a densely populated area, Epsom Downs is within reach of London.
It is also just a 15-minute car ride from the famous Chessington World of Adventures meaning it’s ideal for families to visit as part of a weekend away.
How to Get to Epsom Downs
Epsom Downs is just around 15 miles from the centre of London.
Tattenham Corner train station is a 10-15-minute walk from the entrance to the racecourse. The station links only to London Bridge station.
Arrivals at London Bridge come from Bedford, Brighton, Cambridge, East Croydon, London Charing Cross, Peterborough and a few others. This at least provides a train link to the track.
Both Heathrow and Gatwick airports are within 25 miles of the racecourse and are easily accessible by road.
Where to Stay
There are rooms available near to Epsom Downs, though these are limited. Most visitors choose to stay in London and access the track by train.
Especially for the centre of the track on Derby day, many racegoers choose to book organised tours from the London area.
Major Events at Epsom
Though other meetings take place throughout the warmer months, Epsom’s main focus is of course Derby weekend.
Epsom’s most important races by a long way, and some of the most important in Britain, are hosted across Friday and Saturday in early June. While The Derby must be run on the first Saturday in June, the Oaks can be staged on the last day in May if this is when the meeting naturally falls.
Epsom’s most important races during the year are:
|Blue Riband Trial||3yo Only, Listed Race||1m2f||Spring Meeting||April|
|City and Suburban Handicap||Handicap, Class 2||1m2f||Spring Meeting||April|
|Great Metropolitan Handicap||Handicap, Class 3||1m4f||Spring Meeting||April|
|Woodcote Stakes||Conditions Race, 2yo Only, Class 2||6f||Derby Meeting||June|
|Coronation Cup||4yo+, Group 1||1m4f||Derby Meeting||June|
|Oaks||3yo Fillies Only, Group 1||1m4f||Derby Meeting||June|
|Surrey Stakes||3yo Only, Listed Race||7f||Derby Meeting||June|
|Princess Elizabeth Stakes||3yo+ Fillies & Mares, Group 3||1m½f||Derby Meeting||June|
|Diomed Stakes||3yo+, Group 3||1m½f||Derby Meeting||June|
|Epsom “Dash”||Handicap, 3yo+, Class 2||5f||Derby Meeting||June|
|The Derby||3yo Only, Group 1||1m4f||Derby Meeting||June|
|Amateurs’ Derby||Handicap, 4yo+, Amateur Jockeys Only, Class 4||1m4f||Bank Holiday Family Fun Day||August|
|Derby “Wild Card” Stakes||Conditions Race, 2yo Only, Class 2||1m½f||Season Finale||September|
|Apprentices’ Derby||Handicap, 3yo+, Apprentice Jockeys Only, Class 4||1m4f||Season Finale||September|
Though not one of the recognised major Derby trials, the Blue Riband trial has produced some good horses over the years including Cracksman.
This race, along with the “Wild Card” race in September allows winning horses an automatic place in the Derby. This is a major plus as the very early entry stage and cost for getting horses into the Derby stops many connections from even trying.
The Woodcote Stakes was formerly a Listed event and may get that status back. It has produced horses of the quality of Pinatubo and a number of others in recent times.
The amateur and apprentice versions of the Derby are also a very welcome feature on the racing circuit, ensuring that those not able to ride in the big one itself can still experience the track and trip in a meaningful race.
About Epsom Downs
Records show that a race was held on the Epsom Downs as far back as 1661. According to burial records which record one famous death as being on a horse, potentially while racing, the sport could well have been taking place here as early as the 1640’s.
Some references note Charles II to have been a “racegoer” at Epsom in 1663 and certainly there was a Clerk of the Course for Epsom from 1684 onwards. From 1730 onwards, twice yearly meetings were recorded here.
The magnificent Eclipse, an unbeaten racehorse who to this day has one of the most important Group 1 races in Britain named after him, raced at Epsom Downs in May of 1769. It was to be his first victory in fact.
In 1779 the 12th Earl of Derby Edward Smith-Stanley, put together a race for himself and his associates in order to race their best three-year-old fillies. The race was named the Oaks after his estate situated nearby.
The following year, a race for colts and fillies was also introduced and was named the Derby – we have more information on that story below.
In 1913, the famous suffragette incident occurred at Epsom and is the subject of many stories, history lessons and artwork.
Emily Davison threw herself down in front of Anmer, King George V’s horse, bringing him down with Davison dying of her injuries four days later.
Since those early days Epsom Downs Racecourse and the Derby have gone from strength to strength. A new 11,000-capacity Duchess’s Stand was opened in 2009 with the facilities overall rivalling the more frequently used top-class racecourse such as Newmarket, Goodwood and Ascot.
After the 12th Earl of Derby organised the first Oaks for three-year-old fillies in 1779, he wanted to establish a race primarily for the colts of the same age in 1780.
It was decided that the race was to be named after one of his prestigious guests, Sir Charles Bunbury, or himself. Although in reality is it likely that Bunbury simply deferred to his host, the legend is that the title of the race was decided by a coin toss, won by the Earl.
Either way, this led to the race being named the Derby which was later added with the Oaks to Britain’s list of Classic races alongside the 2000 Guineas, 1000 Guineas and the St Leger.
Sir Charles Bunbury would instead have another race named after him, the Bunbury Cup, which is run at Newmarket each summer.
The Derby was indeed first run on Thursday May 4, 1780. It was won by Diomed, owned by Bunbury, with the Diomed Stakes on Derby weekend now celebrating the horse.
Initially a one-mile race, in 1784 the Derby distance was extended to one-and-a-half miles and became one of the biggest tests of a three-year-old and the most important thoroughbred race on the planet.
The Derby has a legendary record for asserting its influence on global racing. The Kentucky Derby, Irish Derby, Australian Derby, Deutsches Derby, Florida Derby, Santa Anita Derby and countless other races are named after this event.
In 1981, the brilliant Shergar won the Derby by ten lengths. This is a record to this day, though the horse was famously kidnapped thereafter. The Derby track record was broken in 2010 by Workforce.
Importance Within the Breeding Industry
The Derby is at the centre of the breeding industry. Following a line through hugely expensive purchase Northern Dancer, eventually Sadlers Wells was produced.
It became apparent that he himself was producing many Derby contenders and was incredibly valuable as a sire. One of his offspring was Galileo, a brilliant Derby winner in 2001. He went on to win the King George the same year, a rare feat that tends to highlight an exceptional three-year-old.
After Galileo retired, he too went to become a multiple champion sire. Among his many, many achievements, he produced Derby and Oaks winners Serpentine, Love, Minding and Ruler Of The World, as well as truly outstanding types such as Nathaniel and Teofilo.
Top of the list of his progeny before he died however was the amazing Frankel. The greatest racehorse of our, if not any generation, Frankel has since taken on the mantle from Galileo and is now the champion sire.
Although he didn’t compete in the Derby, it is in his blood. So far, he has sired Oaks winner Anapurna as well as Derby third and dual Champion Stakes winner Cracksman.
The story came full circle in 2021 however when the Derby was won by Frankel son Adayar. Hurricane Lane, another Frankel, was back in third. Adayar went on to become the first horse since Galileo to take the King George in the same season, while Hurricane Lane subsequently won the Irish Derby, the Grand Prix de Paris and the St Leger at Doncaster.
This bloodline has done so much for keeping the Derby not only alive, but also helping it retain its status as the most important race in the world despite the trend for faster and faster horses in some racing territories.