Epsom Racecourse Guide

Newmarket may be officially recognised as the headquarters of flat racing in the UK, but it is the Surrey venue of Epsom Downs which is home to the nation’s most famous event: the oft-imitated (but never bettered) Derby Stakes. Benefiting from a stunningly scenic location in the North Downs, but still within a relative stone’s throw of the capital city of London, this truly historic venue ranks amongst the most famous racecourses in the world.

It is of course the world’s greatest Classic contest which has bestowed such acclaim on the course, but there’s plenty going on at Epsom besides. Here we take a closer look at one of Britain’s more unique courses, including information on visiting, most famous races, and the unusual layout of the course itself.

Epsom Derby Festival

Epsom Derby Festival Crowd
Credit: David Jones Flickr

There are other classic contests available over the course of the British racing season, but none boast quite the prestige of the magnificent Epsom Derby which is quite simply a race unmatched in terms of the influence it has on the sport. Win here and a lucrative career at stud is all but guaranteed, with the combination of speed, stamina and balance required to prevail having helped shape the breed for centuries now. A race so important surely deserves its own festival, and the Derby duly gets one.

What is the Epsom Derby Festival?

The middle leg of the British Classic season – being sandwiched between Newmarket’s Guineas meeting and the St Leger at Doncaster – in common with the Newmarket event of May, the Epsom Derby Festival features not one, but two classic contests. A true centrepiece of the season and one of the first dates in the diaries of racing fans.

  • The two-day Epsom Derby Festival takes place on the first Friday and Saturday in June each year.
  • There are a total of 14 races held over the course of the meeting.
  • Of those 14 races, six are rated at Listed level or above, including a trio of Group 1 events.
  • The fillies’ Classic of The Oaks, takes centre stage on the opening Friday, supported by the fellow Group 1 contest of the Coronation Stakes.
  • Saturday is then Derby Day as the finest British and Irish three year old colts do battle over the famous 1m4f course. The Epsom “Dash”, and Group 3 duo of the Princess Elizabeth Stakes and Diomed Stakes head up a quality undercard.
  • The meeting attracts over 60,000 racegoers over the two days, with Derby day itself almost always selling out at 36,000. In addition to those within the course, tens of thousands watch the action unfold from the free-to-access hill in the centre of the track.
  • Amongst the most valuable domestic contests of the season, a total of £1.5 million in prize money is up for grabs in the Derby, with The Oaks offering a not-to-be-sniffed-at £525,000.

Visiting Epsom Races

Epsom Racecourse Visitors
Credit: Monkeywing Flickr

A visit to Epsom Down features on the “to do” list of many a racing fan, with few tracks able to match the combination of history, top-class action, and excellent facilities on offer at the Surrey venue. For those looking to make the trip, the following information may come in handy.

  • Location – Epsom Racecourse is situated in the North Downs region of Surrey, 14 miles to the south of London city centre.
  • Address – Epsom Downs Racecourse, Epsom, Surrey, KT18 5LQ
  • Contact details – epsom.reception@thejockeyclub.co.uk or 01372 726 311 or via Twitter @EpsomRacecourse
  • Tickets – At all meetings other than the Derby Festival, the main Grandstand and the Queen’s Stand operate as a single enclosure. At the Derby Festival these two stands are segregated, with the main Grandstand being the cheaper of the two. See the track’s official website for up to date pricing details.
  • Dress code – For the majority of the season, Epsom operates a fairly relaxed dress code, with smart casual being the norm in most areas of the course. At the Derby meeting itself men are encouraged to wear a smart jacket, whilst those attending the Queen’s Stand on Derby Day must dress formally and sport a top hat.
  • Transport – Lying only just outside the town of Epsom, the track is but a short walk or taxi journey away for those arriving at Epsom Train Station. At the bigger meetings a free shuttle bus service runs from the station to the track. And being situated so close to London, the track is only a short drive from a number of major roads, including the M25. Ticket holders can then take advantage of the free car parking at the track.
  • Accommodation – The Holiday Inn Express London-Epsom Downs is located within the grounds of the track itself, whilst further options can be found in the town of Epsom, and of course in London.
  • Hospitality – Epsom offers an excellent selection of hospitality deals, including fine dining experiences and the popular private boxes. See the hospitality section of the official website for the detailed list.
  • Food and Drink – Bridget’s Bar, Cask London and The Roasting Shed are amongst the popular options in the main Grandstand, whilst the Queen’s Stand features its own Roasting Shed and the swanky Mezzanine Bar. In addition to the above, a wide array of mobile vendors can be found throughout the course.

Epsom History

Epsom History

The first officially recorded race at the track took place in 1661 – five years before the Great Fire of London – although some suggest racing may have taken place on the North Downs from as early as 1625, before then re-emerging in 1661 having been banned during the Commonwealth of England era. Whatever the case, the track is now well into its fourth century of operation and has provided the stage for many of the most famous moments in the sport.

Heads Derby, Tails Bunbury

Slowly but surely gaining in popularity and profile throughout the late 1600s and on into the 1700s, it was the years of 1779 and 1780 in which the track’s two most famous races were born.

The fillies-only event of The Oaks arrived first in 1779, being named in honour of the nearby estate owned by Edward Smith-Stanley, 12th Earl of Derby. In the aftermath of the successful debut of that race, it was decided that a similar event open to both colts and fillies would be launched the following year. But what to name it?

Unable to decide between themselves, the Earl of Derby and fellow race organiser Sir Charles Bunbury are said to have tossed a coin for the right to name what would become one of the world’s most famous races. Had it been Sir Charles and not the Earl who correctly called this toss, we may well have been celebrating the Epsom Bunbury Festival each year in June. Sir Charles nevertheless had very good reason to enjoy the inaugural Derby of 1780, as he owned the winner, Diomed.

Tales of Triumph and Tragedy

With the nation’s two most famous classic contests entrenched as part of the racing calendar, Epsom soon became one of the most prestigious tracks in the land. No stranger to brilliant racehorses even before the Derby, with the mighty unbeaten Eclipse winning his first race here in 1769, the roll call of racing superstars has continued relentlessly over the years; Nijinsky, Galileo, Mill Reef, Sea The Stars and Camelot being just a selection of the racing titans to have graced the Epsom turf.

And amongst all that brilliance, there have been occasional tales of sorrow, with two such incidents being forever etched into racing history. The first of which came in 1913 when a member of the suffragette movement, Emily Davison, threw herself in front of the King’s Horse Anmer during the Derby. Anmer and rider escaped relatively unscathed, but Emily wasn’t so fortunate and ended up dying from her injuries a few days later.

And then there was poor old Shergar. The pride and joy of the Aga Khan had only just posted a brilliantly bulldozing display to land the 1981 Derby by an incredible record-setting 10 lengths, when he was to become one of the sporting world’s most famous kidnapping victims. The IRA are generally believed to have been the villains of the piece and Shergar was sadly never seen again.

All told, a rollercoaster of emotions to rival the famous ups and downs of the course itself. Thankfully though, the good has overwhelmingly outweighed the bad at a truly historical track. A track which continues to move with the times in improving the race day experience; 2009 seeing the opening of a brand new 11,000 capacity grandstand at a cost of £23.5m.

Other Meetings & Races at Epsom

Epsom Race Meeting
Credit: Monkeywing Flickr

The two-day Derby Festival does stand out like a beacon at Epsom, and with the track only laying on a total of 10 race days over the course of the season, the flagship meeting doesn’t have all that much in the way of competition. There are nevertheless other highlights scattered throughout the season, with the following being the most popular with local racegoers.

Spring Meeting

Epsom opens its doors in late April each year, welcoming the fans back by laying on one of its most popular single day meetings of the season. A pair of hugely competitive handicaps in the shape of the City and Suburban Handicap and Great Metropolitan Handicap combine with the Derby trial of the Blue Riband Trial Stakes to provide the highlights on the racing front, whilst a range of additional entertainment serves to enhance the celebratory atmosphere in the stands.

Season Finale

And at the polar opposite end of the season, late September sees the track bring down the curtain on another year. And just as the fans arrive in their droves to mark the beginning of the season, this Autumn highlight also welcomes a bumper crowd. Traditionally held on a Wednesday afternoon, the Apprentices’ Derby Handicap is the highlight of a seven-race card, giving the up-and-coming riders the chance to tackle the Derby course and distance.

Family Fun Day

And for those hoping to bring the family along, this summertime fixture on the August Bank Holiday Monday is well worth considering. A punter friendly spot in the calendar, combined with a fair chance of excellent weather and a whole host of free entertainment for the kids, makes this a popular option with families from far and wide. A competitive seven-race card of predominantly handicapping fare provides the action on the track for those more inclined to punt than have their face painted. Although of course you can do both.

Biggest Races at Epsom

A total of six contests rated at Listed level or above is an impressive total for a course which stages just the ten race days per season. And perhaps not too surprisingly all six of those take place at the excellent Derby Festival. That sextet dominates the list of the biggest races at the Surrey venue.

  • The Derby, Derby Meeting – Group 1, 1m4f6y
  • The Oaks, Derby Meeting – Group 1, 1m4f6y
  • Coronation Cup, Derby Meeting – Group 1, 1m4f6y
  • Princess Elizabeth Stakes, Derby Meeting – Group 3, 1m113y
  • Diomed Stakes, Derby Meeting – Group 3, 1m113y
  • Surrey Stakes, Derby Meeting – Listed, 7f3y
  • Epsom Dash, Derby Meeting – Handicap, 5f
  • Woodcote Stakes, Derby Meeting -Conditions, 6f3y
  • Blue Riband Trial Stakes, April Meeting – Conditions, 1m2f17y
  • City and Suburban Handicap, April Meeting – Handicap, 1m2f17y

The Track

Epsom Racecourse View of Track
Credit: Diamond Geezer Flickr

The track layout at Epsom is one of the more unique configurations in the whole of British racing, consisting not of a complete circuit, but rather an open horseshoe shape with two long straights and a wide sweeping left-handed bend. Three spurs join the main track; two of which run into the bend and contain the starting points for events over six furlongs and seven furlongs, with the third then leading directly into the home straight and featuring the five-furlong start. Running downhill for all but the final 100 yards, the five-furlong sprint track is recognised as one of the fastest in the world. Given the main track’s unusual layout, the 1m4f6y trip of the Derby represents the maximum distance over which races can take place.

Runners tackling the Derby distance run straight for a short distance before kinking right-handed and heading on to the long left-handed bend. Climbing continually as they do so, by the time the field reaches the mid-point of this bend, they will have climbed fully 142ft from the starting stalls. It’s steeply downhill from there around the final turn of Tattenham Corner and into the home straight which continues downhill, before climbing sharply again in the final 100 yards.

Over the five-furlong course, those drawn in the middle are at a distinct disadvantage compared to those drawn on either rail, with a high draw being the best of all. This general trend exists at all trips up to 1m2f, with the exception of races over 6f where middle-drawn runners actually boast a slide edge. Over the Derby distance high is again the place to be, with low drawn runners having the worst record of all – possibly due to that initial right-handed kink.