Derby Festival 2018

Eclipster: Epsom Derby Musings 2020

The Epsom Derby will be run on Saturday, 5th July this year, and our tipster Tony Ward muses on the history of this world-renowned race. 

The first Derby I attended was the 2004 renewal which was won by North Light. He had won The Dante at York which is a key Derby trial, where he beat the Godolphin runner Rule Of Law under Frankie Dettori by half a length. North Light seemed to have the best form coming into the race and I backed him confidently at odds of 7/2 before the race.

My confidence turned out to be justified as North Light came home under Kieren Fallon to win by 1½ lengths, beating Rule of Law into second place again. That turned out to be North Light’s final victory. He did go on to finish runner up to Grey Swallow in the Irish Derby and finished in seventh place in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.

He is now standing at stud at Adena Springs, Kentucky and his most successful progeny to date is Arctic Cosmos who won the St Leger in 2010 and who now also stands at stud.

The Derby is the most famous horse race in the world. All of the other races entitled ‘Derby’ are prefixed with the name of the country they are run in. So we have the Irish Derby, the French Derby (run over 1 mile 2 furlongs for some reason), the German Derby and so on.

The race was first run in 1780 and is named after the Edward Smith-Stanley the 12th Earl of Derby and it was won by Diomed, owned by Sir Charles Bunbury of the Bunbury Cup race which is run at Newmarket. The prize money awarded to the winner was £1,065 15s which is worth £192,552 today. The first four renewals of the race were run over 1 mile, before the distance was upped to 1 mile 4 furlongs which is the trip it has been run over ever since.

The race has always been run on Epsom Down apart from the war years when it was temporarily moved to Newmarket. Initially held on a Thursday, the race was moved to Wednesday in 1838 to fit in with the railway timetables of the time and did not become a Saturday fixture until 1995.

So many legends have won the race during its 240 renewals that it is rather difficult to pick horses to mention. However, it would be remiss of me not the mention Sir Peter Teazle who was bred and owned by the 12th Earl of Derby. He won the 1787 renewal and was his owner’s only Derby winner. He went on to win 16 of his 21 races, but it was his achievement at stud which marks him out as one of the greats. Over his time standing at the Earl of Derby’s stud at Knowsley he sired four Derby winners, two Oaks winners and four St Leger winners, and he headed the Leading Sire List nine times in 11 years.

The 1864 winner Blair Athol had an interesting start to his racing career. He was slow to develop and did not run as a two year old. Despite having been entered in nine races without running in any of them, he was seen by the experts of the day as a horse with serious potential. In the spring of 1864 Blair Athol had training problems and missed his intended engagement in the Dee Stakes at Chester. He had dental problems and this sometimes prevented him from feeding, but his main problem was from a stable lad who repeatedly kicked him on his legs and genitals. When he was caught it transpired that he was being paid by bookmakers to stop him from running.

He made his racecourse debut in The Derby and was sent off at odds of 14/1 in a strong field of 29 opponents. He broke slowly and was at the back of the field in the early stages. His jockey rode a steady race bringing him through the field and was tracking the leaders coming into the straight. The 2,000 Guineas winner General Peel went to the front and looked the likely winner before Blair Athol was produced for his run and drew away with “ridiculous ease” to win the race by two lengths and posting a new track record of 2 minutes 43.6 seconds. He went on to win another four races during the season, including the St Leger but had to be retired after the race as he was struck into by another horse during the race and sustained a tendon injury.

Blair Athol went on to be a very successful stallion, being Champion Stallion four times between 1872 and 1977. His classic winners included Silvio, Prince Charlie, Craig Millar, Cecilia and Scottish Queen.

Perhaps appropriately, we will finish with another Derby winner owned by the 17th Earl of Derby. Hyperion won the 1933 renewal and was retired with a record of nine wins from 13 starts, including victories in the St Leger, the Dewhurst Stakes, the Prince of Wales Stakes and the Chester Cup. His career winning totalled £29,509, equivalent to £2,112,479 today.

Hyperion was extremely influential at stud. In total he sired the winners of 752 races including 84 Stakes wins and was the leading sire in Great Britain and Ireland six times. His progeny included Owen Tudor and Sun Chariot and his descendants have exerted a profound influence on the racing and breeding industries in Australia and New Zealand though his sons Empyrean, Helios, High Peak Red Mars and Ruthless, as well as paternal grandsons such as Star King, later known as the outstanding sire, Star Kingdom.

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