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The Derby Festival

Modern Greats at the Epsom Derby Festival

The stars of the show

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Throughout the history of racing at Epsom the horses have always been the stars of the show.

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. Ably assisted by Lester Piggott, he beat Sea-Bird’s son Gyr, before going on to sire three Derby winners – Golden Fleece (1982), Shahrastani (1986) and Lammtarra (1995) – and the 1986 Kentucky Derby winner, Ferdinand.

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. Sadly, tragedy struck the following year when he broke his near-foreleg in training. The colt underwent a six-hour operation, involving the insertion of a steel plate in his leg, and spent six weeks in plaster. Making a full recovery, he retired to the National Stud to sire Derby winners Shirley Heights (1978) and Reference Point (1987).

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Lammtarra, who broke the track record in 1995 and, retired unbeaten, also went into the record books, as the first Derby winner to be sired by a Derby winner (Nijinsky 1970), out of an Oaks winner (Snow Bride 1989). The second to do so was Australia in 2014 – sired by Galileo (2001), out of Ouija Board (2004).

When asked for my favourite Derby winners, I think of Pinza (1953), with Gordon Richards up, winning the Coronation Derby, from Her Majesties, Aureole; Troy (1979), setting the seal on Derby 200, storming up the straight to win by seven lengths, and more recently, Golden Horn (2015) with Frankie’s emotional celebrations in the Winner's Enclosure.

For the three greatest Oaks winners of the 20th century, I would like to nominate:

Pretty Polly (1904), bred and owned by Major Eustace Loder and the winner of 22 races from 24 starts, including, the One Thousand Guineas, St Leger and Coronation Cup, twice. Sceptre (1902), owned and trained by the enigmatic Bob Sievier and winner of both the One and Two Thousand Guineas, the St Leger and Champion Stakes.

Many fillies came close for my third choice, but heart ruling head, I’ve gone for Petite Etoile (1959), owned by Prince Aly Khan, trained by Noel Murless and ridden by Lester Piggott. In all she won 14 races from 19 starts, including, the One Thousand Guineas, Champion Stakes and Coronation Cup, twice.

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The Epsom stars of the 21st century

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Galileo, an impressive Derby winner in 2001, has been Champion Sire in G.B. and Ireland, twelve times, getting five Derby winners: New Approach (2008), Ruler Of The World (2013), Australia (2014), Anthony Van Dyck (2019) and Serpentine (2020), five winners of the Oaks: Was (2012) and Minding (2016), Enable (2017), Forever Together (2018), Love (2020) and Tuesday (2022) and of course, the magical Frankel.

Eight years after foaling Galileo, his dam Urban Sea, produced another Derby hero – Sea The Stars, who lit up the spring, summer and autumn of 2009, with six scintillating Group 1 victories, to be heralded one of the all-time greats.

Up until 2017, the best winners of the Oaks this century, were tightly matched – Ouija Board (2004), winner of the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare, twice; Taghrooda (2014), winner of the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, and Minding (2016), One Thousand Guineas, Nassau Stakes and Queen Elizabeth II Stakes. And then came Enable.

Remarkably, Enable was inbred 2 x 3 to the 14-time Champion Sire Sadler’s Wells. Not only did she win the Investec Oaks in a hailstorm, but with 26 yards added to the distance, created a new race-record of 2 min 34.13 sec. Enable went on to win the Darley Irish Oaks, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, Darley Yorkshire Oaks, Qatar Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (twice), 118Bet September Stakes (AW) and the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf at Churchull Downs. Trained by John Gosden at Newmarket, she stays in training in a bid to win a third Prix de l’ Arc de Triomphe.

Of the non-equine stars, no list would be complete without Lester Piggott, winner of a record nine Derby’s from Never Say Die in1954, to Teenoso in 1983. He also rode six winners of the Oaks, from Carrozza for the Queen in 1957, to Circus Plume for Sir Robin McAlpine in 1984.
We also remember Sir Henry Cecil, who by winning 25 British Classics, became the 20th century’s most successful trainer, with eight winners of the Oaks, notably in 1985 with Oh So Sharp, and four winners of the Derby: Slip Anchor (1985), Reference Point (1987), Commander in Chief (1993) and Oath (1999). He was Champion trainer 10 times from 1976-1993, with his final accolades coming with Frankel – unbeaten after 14 races, including the 2012 Queen Anne Stakes by 11 lengths, witnessed by the author and thought to be his finest victory. Henry Cecil died of cancer on 11 June 2013, and the following Investec Oaks was run “In Memory Of Sir Henry Cecil.”

More from the Official Derby Historian  – Michael Church.

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