“Heads it is – so it’s the Derby – the Derby Stakes...”
Although there are no details in the archives concerning the foundation of the Derby, history has passed on the tale that the 12th Earl of Derby and Sir Charles Bunbury (the “perpetual president” of the Jockey Club, who was a guest at Lord Derby’s house, itself called The Oaks) spun a coin as to whether the race should be called the Derby Stakes or the Bunbury Stakes.
The first running of the Derby Stakes on Thursday, 4 May 1780, was open to three-year-old colts (8st 0lb) and fillies (7st 11lb), at 50 guineas each, run over a mile. There were nine runners, and although Lord Derby won the toss of the coin, it was Sir Charles Bunbury who owned the first winner – Diomed, the 6-4 favourite. Note: The Derby distance was extended to a mile and a half from 1784.
But what of the Oaks Stakes – a race for fillies, run a year earlier?
At the Epsom May Meeting in 1778, Lord Derby, who often acted as a steward at the meeting, invited a party of friends to his house, including General John Burgoyne, Richard Sheridan the playwright and Charles Fox, the prominent Whig politician. Burgoyne, impressed with Anthony St Leger’s previous one-off sweepstakes at Cantley Common (forerunners of the St Leger), suggested to Lord Derby, that since the four-day race programme consisted solely of heats of either two or four miles, that the following year, a single race over one and a half miles for three-year-old fillies, would add some spice to the meeting.
The race, named after Lord Derby’s country house in Woodmansterne, was first run on Friday, 14 May, 1779. Open to three-year-old fillies, (8st 4lb), at 50 guineas each and run over a mile and a half, there were 12 runners and appropriately, it was won by Lord Derby’s Bridget, the 5-2 favourite.
With now the inaugural races of the Oaks and Derby run, who could have predicted they would provide an uninterrupted line of winners, extending over more than two and a quarter centuries – the only two races in the world to do so.
But why Epsom and how long has there been racing there?
The strange origin of Epsom’s rise to fame came in 1618, when herdsman, Henry Wicker discovered a water hole northwest of the turnpike road, between Epsom and Ashtead. Although the water, thought to be undrinkable, was examined by local physicians, it was a further 12 years before the highly purgative qualities of the water were discovered – one gallon of water containing 480 grains of calcareous nitre.
What followed was a product that became known as Epsom Salts, which at its height, sold at five shillings an ounce in 1640. Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary of 1667, “We got to Epsom by 8 a-clock to the Well, where much company; and there we light and I drank the water.”
Later, he visited the King’s Head, the nearest inn to the downs, “where my Lord Buckhurst and Nelly (Nell Gwynne, the King’s mistress), is lodged at the next house, and keeps a merry house.”
Epsom’s earliest race-days were in the 1640’s. In mid-May 1648, during the throes of the Civil War, the Earl of Clarendon in his History of the Rebellion relates, “a meeting of the royalists was held on Banstead Downs, under the pretence of a horse race, and six hundred horses were collected and marched to Reigate.” This suggests that for such an under-cover rendezvous to take place, racing at Epsom must have been a regular and well attended occasion.
Under the Commonwealth (1649-60), horseracing was banned, but upon its demise, the first recorded race meeting in the country took place at Epsom on 7 March 1661, in the presence of Charles II.
Throughout the fluctuating fortunes in the town, race meetings on the downs had become a regular feature in May and October from 1730, with prizes of cups and plates provided by the local nobility.
More from the Official Derby Historian – Michael Church.