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The stars of the show


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).

Mention the name of Shergar and someone is bound to ask ‘Whatever happened to Shergar?’ After winning the 1981 Derby, by a record 10 lengths, the Irish Derby and the ‘King George’, he was kidnapped from the Aga Khan’s Ballymany Stud in Co. Kildare, by an armed gang on 8th February 1983. Shergar, whose syndication value was £10 million, became the subject of a £2 million ransom, but the kidnappers never received payment. Sean O’Callaghan, a senior member of the Provisional IRA who later turned informer, stated: “Shergar was loaded into a horsebox and driven off towards north County Leitrim…The horse threw itself into a frenzy in the horsebox, damaging a leg and proving impossible for the team to control. He was killed within days, even though the IRA kept up the pretence he was alive.”


Four months later, it was reported that the insurers, Lloyds of London, having received no further contact from the kidnappers, had agreed to pay £7 million to the owners’ syndicate, on the presumption that Shergar was dead. 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).


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.


The Epsom stars of the 21st century have been equally exciting


Galileo, an impressive Derby winner in 2001, has been Champion Sire in G.B. and Ireland, six times, getting three Derby winners: New Approach (2008), Ruler Of The World (2013) and Australia (2014).


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, after which he was heralded as one of the all time greats.

In 2014 we were treated to Australia, bred by Lord Derby from his 2004 Oaks winner Ouija Board, trained by Aidan O’Brien and ridden by his son Joseph.

So far, this century, the best winners of the Oaks have been tightly matched – Ouija Board, winner of the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare, twice; Snow Fairy, winner of the Irish Oaks, Hong Kong Cup and Irish Champion Stakes and Taghrooda, winner of the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes.

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.

Also, we remember Sir Henry Cecil, the most successful trainer of the 20th century in domestic Classic races, winning 25 British Classics, including eight winners of the Oaks, notably in 1985 with Oh So Sharp completing the fillies’ Triple Crown. He also trained four winners of the Derby – Slip Anchor (1985), Reference Point (1987), Commander in Chief (1993) and Oath (1999), and was Champion trainer 10 times from 1976-1993. However, his final glory came with training 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. The 2014 Investec Oaks was run “In Memory Of Sir Henry Cecil.”


Finally, a special thanks must go to Her Majesty The Queen, who has supported both the Derby and Oaks throughout her reign. She has attended Derby Day on all but two renewals of the race since her Coronation, having had ten runners in the race from Aureole (2nd in 1953) to Carlton House (3rd in 2011). She has had two winners of the Oaks: Carrozza (in 1957) and Dunfermline (in 1977), the latter, also winning the St Leger.

Named British flat racing Champion owner in 1954 and 1957, she was the first reigning monarch to do so twice.


More from the Official Derby Historian  – Michael Church.

The Suffragette Derby & Thereafter

The dramatic events of the 1913 Derby produced the most sensational race in its entire history. 

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Our History

The foundations of racing at Epsom Downs & iconic annual event, The Derby

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