Saturday, 4 June 2011

Derby Day and the Royal Connection

Today - 4th June - is Derby Day and like millions of others, I'll be glued to the TV to watch this very special race.

The Derby Stakes, or the Epsom Derby, or just The Derby is run every year in early June on the Epsom Downs in Surrey. It was first run in 1780, 231 years ago, and although it's not the oldest race (that title is held by the St. Ledger, first run in 1776), it is the richest and the most prestigious of the five Classics.  It's also known as the Greatest Horse Race in the World and the race that every owner, trainer and jockey wants to win more than any other.  This Group 1 race, now sponsored by Investec, is open to three-year-old thoroughbred colts and fillies and is takes place over a distance of 1 mile, 4 furlongs and 10 yards on the notoriously difficult Epsom course, about which more later.

The Derby at Epsom, 1821 - Theodore Gericault (1791-1824)


Edward Smith Stanley, the 12th Earl of Derby, organised a friendly competition for himself and his friends to race their three-year-old fillies over one and a half miles. He named it The Oaks after his estate. The following year a new race was added, a race that would determine the Best of the Best for both the racing and breeding of racehorses. The title of the race was to be decided by the tossing of a coin between the Earl of Derby and Sir Charles Bunbury, a leading racing figure of the day and friend of the Earl's.

This tossed coin was won by Stanley and the race would be known as ‘The Derby'; won incidentally, that very first year by Sir Charles Bunbury's horse, Diomed. 140 other countries now hold a sporting ‘Derby’, but, Epsom still remains ‘The Home of The Derby’, attracting the largest one day sporting crowd in excess of 125,000 who descend upon the Surrey racecourse to be part of something special - The Greatest Horse Race in the World.

The Course

As one of the most famous race courses in the world, its also one of the most testing trips in flat racing. Resembling the shape of a horseshoe, the Derby course of a mile and a half is ran in a left-handed direction. A right-handed rise of some one hundred and forty feet begins not long after the race commences. After about three furlongs at the top of the hill the field descend at Tattenham Corner and enter the finishing straight of about three and a half furlongs. The drop of about one hundred feet continues until about one hundred yards from the finishing line, the ground here rises for another several feet before the winning post.

Derby winners are special - any horse that can cope with the noise, plus the undulations, twists, turns and unusual camber of the Epsom course, plus have the necessary speed and stamina, are highly prized.  Colts usually become valuable stud stallions and Sea the Stars, the 2009 winner, went on to become the most valuable horse in the world after winning The Derby, the 2,000 Guinea and the Eclipse Stakes.

2011 Race

This year's race is the 30th anniversary of Shergar's win.  Shergar won The Derby in 1981 by a record 10 lengths, the longest winning margin in the race's history.  He was retired to stud, but two years later in February 1983, armed and masked men broke into the Ballymany Stud in County Kildare and kidnapped Shergar.  A ransom demanded, but after a series of negotiations it was never paid and Shergar was not seen again.  Shergar's remains have never been found and the thieves have never been officially identified.

For the tenth time, HM The Queen has a runner in The Derby with a colt named Carlton House (after the Prince Regent's mansion in Pall Mall).   The Queen has never won The Derby and in this Royal Wedding year, millions of people will be cheering on the favourite Carlton House in the hope he can achieve victory in this most famous of horse races.

I'll be one of them ;o)

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