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The Derby Festival

The Epsom Derby Festival Early Years

The Premier event in the racing year

“The road to Epsom was crowded with all descriptions of people hurrying to the races; some to plunder and some to be plundered. Horses, gigs, curricles, coaches, chaises, carts and pedestrians covered with dust crowded the Downs, the people running down and jostling each other as they met in contact. Hazard, cockfighting, E.O. and faro assisted in plucking the pigeons, and the rooks feathered their nests with the plunder.”


The fascination of Derby Day attracted the aristocracy and the workman equally, shoulder to shoulder for the day, and the flow of ready money proved a magnet to both while in pursuit of a good time.

Various gambling games were played inside the sprawl of tents across the Downs. Hazard was the most popular dice game and the forerunner of the American game known as Craps. There was also E.O. (Even and Odd), a simplistic, but often rigged form of roulette, and Faro, a card game where players would bet against the dealer on what cards he would turn up. Through all this, certain types of ladies plied their trade and drunkenness was rife from morning until night.


Although the illegal bare-knuckle boxing matches were difficult to track down, they were extremely popular; the exact venue on the Downs being kept a closely guarded secret until just before the fight.

“To gratify the plebeians and commoners, a subscription purse of £25 was collected for a fight between Dick Curtis and Cooper the Gypsy. It took place in the railed hollow where the plate horses saddle, and in the hurry to encircle the field of blood, hundreds of elegant females had a peep if they chose, as they were snugly wedged in…”


Research confirms that Curtis won the fight in about 30 minutes with much skill and science displayed by both boxers. For good measure another interesting fight took place that afternoon, although it was not reported until 1876, when Thomas Coleman’s “Recollections” were published in Baily’s Magazine;
“After the races, there was a prize-fight between a Jew named Moses and another, both regular fighting men. They fought in the bottom, near the old two-mile post, and the Duke of York was there on a splendid brown cob – such a beauty! About 15 hands high, clean shaped, and such power, with a beautiful head. The Duke (owner of Derby winner, also called Moses), was not as tall as his brother, George IV, but more corpulent – ran more to middle – appeared to enjoy the fight much, and as, round after round, those by the ring kept calling out, ‘Well done, Moses! – go it again, Moses!’ seemed to be pleased and enlivened at the sound of the word, cast up his head and gave a sort of puff with his mouth.”


Incredibly, the attending masses at the time knew very little about the horses, the times of the races, or the results. The serious betting on the races was conducted between around two or three hundred nobleman, layers or legs and ‘gentlemen of fortune’, who, on horseback or from carriages, formed a ring around the betting post high on the Downs.

Benjamin Disraeli in his novel Sybil described the scene at the 1837 Derby, and expresses the intense passion of those waiting, as true today for some as then:
“A few minutes, only a few minutes, and the event that for twelve months has been the pivot of so much calculation, of such subtle combinations, of such deep conspiracies, round which the thought and passion of the sporting world have hung like eagles, will be recorded in the fleeting tablets of the past. But what minutes! Count them by sensation and not by calendars, and each moment is a day and the race a life.”

"Almost the whole of what may be justly styled the ‘vagabond gamblers’ of London were present. Mr Bowes, half-brother of the Earl of Strathmore, was robbed of a gold watch and a purse containing 30 guineas at Epsom races, on Thursday last (Derby Day). Many other persons shared a similar fate, both on the same evening and on Friday. Upwards of 30 coaches were robbed coming from the races.”


However, in spite of the warnings printed about Derby Day, it rapidly grew in popularity. Attendance swelled from around 8,000 in 1795 to ten times that number in 1823, when Bell’s Life (a forerunner of The Sporting Life and first published in 1822), reported:
“By one o’clock there must have been eighty thousand persons assembled on the Downs – what they all went thither for is best known to themselves, but certainly not one twentieth of them saw the race, and the only other amusements were broiling on an arid heath beneath a mid-day sun, or sitting in booths crowded to suffocation amidst the fumes of tobacco and all sorts of hideous uproar…”.

“The new grandstand at Epsom accommodates 5,000 spectators. It is 156ft wide and 60ft in depth. The columns of the portico are Doric, supporting a covered gallery erected on ornamental iron pillars…the roof contains about 2,000 spectators standing…everyone can see the whole Derby course. The magistrates for the County of Surrey are respectfully informed that they will be admitted free.”

The old format of two and four-mile heats was being replaced with single races over a variety of distances and two-year-old races were becoming popular. Race meetings, such as Epsom, Newmarket, Ascot, Chester and Doncaster, were no longer run entirely by and for the aristocracy, but attracted an interest from a wider public. Fuelled by Bell’s Life, the general public would slowly, but increasingly, have knowledge of the more important race meetings and the results.

In 1827, a local printer, William Dorling, produced the first racecard – “Dorling’s Genuine Card List”. The racecard, revolutionary at the time, gave not only the list of runners, but also their owners, pedigrees, jockeys, colours and, for the major races, the ‘state of the odds’.

The Dorlings’ influence at Epsom lasted nearly a century. William’s son Henry became Clerk of the Course in 1839, until his son, the thoroughly unpopular Henry Mayson Dorling, took over and kept the position until his death in 1919.

Returning to the mid-19th century, the railway system would not only revolutionise horse travel, but sportsmen would be able to travel from course to course in comparative comfort. Against this background, however, grew increasingly unscrupulous elements, such as thugs paid to make the favourite ‘safe’, crooked jockeys in the pay of ‘legs’ (early bookmakers) and con-men in many guises, who would stop at nothing to part both the aristocracy and the tradesmen from their money.


Sadly, villainy on the Turf reached a new peak in the Derby of 1844. The apparent winner Running Rein, owned by Mr A.Wood, a respectable Epsom corn-chandler, was in reality a four-year-old named Maccabeus.

In 1841, an unscrupulous villain, Abraham Goodman Levy, bought two horses: Maccabeus, a yearling, and a colt foal named Running Rein who was entered in the Derby. Later, after the application of a hairdresser’s black dye and the deliberate duplication of a scar on Running Rein, the two colts appeared identical. A year before the Derby, Goodman switched Running Rein for Maccabeus, who then three, easily won a 2-y-o race at Newmarket.


On the Saturday before the Derby, a signed petition was given to the Epsom stewards requesting that Running Rein’s mouth be examined by a vet to determine his age. On the advice of Captain (later Admiral) Rous, the stewards allowed the horse to run, stating that if he won an inquiry would follow before any payment of stakes.

Due to the hard ground, the race was run in clouds of dust, with Running Rein withstanding Orlando’s challenge to win by three-quarters of a length. But within an hour, the runner-up’s owner Colonel Jonathan Peel supported by Lord George Bentinck, lodged an objection and then proceeded to take legal action against Mr A. Wood, the innocent owner of the winner. Much confusion followed, before the civil case of Wood v Peel held at the Court of the Exchequer on 1 July, 1844 settled the matter. After hearing all the evidence, the Judge demanded they “produce the horse”. The plaintiff and his counsel, not able to comply, withdrew from the case, leaving Peel and Bentinck triumphant. Orlando was awarded the Derby, while Goodman and his cronies, who
had stood to win £50,000, fled to France.

Finally, Lord George Bentinck was rewarded for his diligence by a testimonial, from which was founded the Bentinck Benevolent Fund for the needy dependants of trainers and jockeys.

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