The History of the Epsom Derby

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The Epsom Derby is one of the oldest organized sporting events still being held. It dates right back to 1780 and in 237 years it has given us some great drama and some memorable days at the race track.

But how did it all begin and how has it evolved? Here is our concise guide to one of the most famous horse races on the planet.

Early Days

The very first Derby was held on Epsom Downs in 1780 and was named after its chief host, the 12th Earl of Derby. In fact, it was spawned from the Epsom Oaks, which was run a year earlier in 1779 after the officials decided they needed to expand the meeting.

The Oaks is still run at Epsom and traditionally takes place on Ladies Day, the Friday before the Derby itself, but over the years, it has slipped in importance behind its younger counterpart.

First successes

The initial 1780 race was run by Diomed who now has an Epsom race named after him. For the first four years, the Derby was run over one mile before being extended to its current distance of one and a half miles in 1784.

In the modern day, we are used to seeing the Derby being run on the first Saturday in June but at the start, the race was held on a Thursday, either in late May or early June.

First changes

Aside from that early shift in distance, the first major changes to the race took place towards the middle of the 19th century. During these times, the starting point was amended on two separate occasions, the first of these coming in 1848 before the current start was established in 1872.

In 1838, racing was shifted to Wednesday but the exact date was still not a rigid one and it depended on when Easter fell.

New Venue

The Epsom Derby held the very first run in 1780 and it continues to do so but global conflict forced changes in venue in the 20th century. The two World Wars meant that Newmarket had to step in and host the event from 1915 to 1918 and then again from 1940 to 1945.

The end of those wars saw the Derby switch straight back to Epsom which has happily enjoyed an unbroken run since the 1946 renewal.

What’s in a name?

The fact that other races use the word ‘Derby’ in their name is no coincidence. This iconic race has spawned many imitators including the Kentucky Derby, The Deutsches Derby and the New Zealand Derby.

Over the years, the name has been altered slightly to accommodate corporate sponsorship and the Investec Derby has therefore been run since 2009. This will be the case until at least 2022 when the current deal is due for renewal.

The most recent change in scheduling has seen The Derby run on the first Saturday in June since 1995. It’s a logical switch that means more people have easy access to what is the most famous flat race in the calendar. 237 years and counting, the Investec Derby continues as one of the world’s most anticipated sporting events.