Epsom Derby Festival
Early June in Surrey sees two of the finest days of flat racing on these or any other shores: it’s the Derby Festival.
The feature events on the Friday and Saturday are amongst the most prestigious and valuable in the world today. This value comes not from the prize money alone, although the Derby is Britain’s richest flat race, but from the breeding value bestowed upon the winner.
Historically the jewel in Epsom’s crown was always run as a midweek meeting but this all changed in 1995. In this year the Oaks was switched to a Friday so that the Derby could be run in a prime time Saturday slot more befitting of its status. From imperious performances by the likes of Nijinsky, Shergar, Galileo, Sea The Stars and others, to the infamous moment when suffragette Emily Davison threw herself in front of the King’s Horse in 1913, this is a meeting steeped in history and is not to be missed.
There are 14 races in all across the two days including three Group 1’s, two Group 3’s, and two Listed contests. All will be watched by a capacity crowd of 120,000 drawn by the memories of heroes past and the promise of a glimpse of a legend of the future.
Here we take a look at the feature races taking place around Epsom’s unique turns and undulations.
Derby Festival Day One: Ladies Day, Friday
Princess Elizabeth Stakes (Group 3)
Straight into Group class action for our opening race on the Friday, a day which has come to be known as Ladies Day. As such it is fitting that our opener is a race for fillies and mares aged three years and over and is named after a Princess.
This 1m 114 yard contest was originally run as the Victress Stakes and has only been a part of the Epsom offering since 1995. Frankie Dettori gets on particularly well with the fillies in this race, recording five wins in the first 20 editions. Repeat victories are relatively common here with Echelon, Antara and Thistle Bird all recording back to back successes.
Diomed Stakes (Group 3)
As the winner of the inaugural Derby, Diomed probably deserves to have a race named after him and he gets it here. Run over the same course and distance as the opening Princess Elizabeth Stakes, this race is open to any thoroughbred aged three and over. Some pretty smart sorts have won this since it made its debut in 1971 including Intikhab and the globetrotting Side Glance. It is Gerard Butler’s Nayyir though who achieved arguably the most impressive feat in the race’s history, winning for the first time in 2002 and returning to reclaim his crown four years later in 2006.
Investec Coronation Cup (Group 1)
A horse by the name of Coronation won the Derby way back in 1841. However, this race was not named after him but instead to honour the ascent to the throne of King Edward VII in 1902.
Recently moved to the Friday, this adds yet more class to Oaks day. It is run over the same course and distance as the two Epsom Classics. This is, effectively, The Derby for older horses, being open to those aged four and over. Some real superstars have won this over the years including, Mill Reef, Bustino, Swain, Yeats and three time winner St Nicholas Abbey.
Notable training records include Aiden O’Brien winning the race seven times between 2005 and 2013. French trainer Andre Fabre also triumphed in 1994, 1995 and 1996 with three different horses.
There aren’t many big flat meetings where the great Lester Piggott doesn’t hold some sort of record, he’s the most successful jockey in the history of this race with nine wins.
Investec Oaks (Group 1)
The theme of the day continues in the day’s feature event, the Oaks. The winner of the third Classic of the British flat racing season will boast strong claims of being the best three-year-old middle distance filly in the world. Challengers from the only other fillies Classic, Newmarket’s 1000 Guineas, often come here for their next start. The task awaiting them is a stern one, the straight course of the Rowley Mile is one thing, a mile and a half around Epsom’s twists and turns is quite another. For a filly to come out on top in both races marks her as being right out of the top draw
The Legendary Henry Cecil, best known as the trainer of Frankel, won this race an incredible eight times. That’s still not enough to make him the most successful trainer in the history of the race though, as one Robert Robson won this 13 times between the years of 1802 and 1825. Sun Chariot, Musidora and Oh So Sharp were all so good they now have races named after them, all won here as did the supremely talented Ouija Board.
Derby Festival Day Two: Derby Day, Saturday
Investec Woodcote Stakes (Listed Race)
The second race on Derby Day is one of the premier juvenile sprint events of the campaign. Much of Epsom’s sprint track is downhill making it amongst the fastest in the country. Six furlongs of that track is in play here in a race for the real speedballs. Winners here don’t always go on to fulfil the promise of their debut campaign in a race that often goes to a precocious sort.
Investec Derby (Group 1)
Saturday. Race five. It’s time for the big one. Run over a distance of 1 mile 4 furlongs and 10 yards, the Derby is the most prestigious of all the Classics and the race that all trainers, owners and jockeys covet above any other. Officially open to three-year-old colts and fillies it is in fact rare for a filly to be entered these days. None has taken home the prize since 1916.
There are in fact many Derby’s run around the world today, be they in the United Arab Emirates, Australia or, more famously, Kentucky. They all take not only the inspiration for their name, but also the blueprint for the ultimate test of a thoroughbred from this race. First run in 1780, Epsom’s Derby is the original… and still the best. Speed, stamina, balance and heart are tested here unlike at any other course. This is predominantly due to the uniquely demanding configuration of this track, with its sweeping turns and pronounced undulations.
We mentioned a few famous winners in our introduction, Sea Bird, Sir Ivor, Nashwaan, Sinndar and High Chaparral are others on a list littered with greats. The brilliant Aiden O’Brien entered the history books in 2014 by becoming the first trainer to win the race in three successive years. The all-time most successful jockey? That man Lester Piggott again with nine wins.