The Derby Stakes, or simply the Derby, is named after Edward Smith Stanley, 12th Earl of Derby, who co-founded the race with Sir Charles Bunbury, Steward of the Jockey Club, in 1780. The inaugural running, over a straight mile, on Epsom Downs, featured nine runners and was won by the 6/4 favourite, Diomed, owned by Bunbury. Four years later, the distance was extended to a mile-and-a-half and, apart from the years 1915-1918 and 1940-45 – when the race was run, as the ‘New Derby Stakes’, at Newmarket – the Derby has been staged over the same course and distance.
Of course, the Derby is a Group One contest, run over an advertised distance of 1 mile, 4 furlongs and 6 yards at Epsom Downs Racecourse in early June. The race is open to thoroughbred three-year-old colts and fillies, although the last filly to participate was Cape Verdi in 1998. Designated a ‘Classic’ by the Jockey Club in 1814, the Derby is the most valuable horse race run in Britain, with total prize money of £1.625 million.
Befitting a race sometimes billed as the ‘Supreme Test of a Racehorse’, the Derby is run on a notoriously testing, switchback course, which rises steadily throughout the first three-quarters of mile before a sweeping, downhill turn into the home straight, at Tattenham Corner. The final furlong is uphill and the ground falls away towards the inside rail in the straight, creating an adverse camber, which can throw horses off balance and create trouble in running. Nevertheless, the roll of honour for the Derby reads like a ‘Who’s Who’ of middle-distance talent over the years and include the likes of Sea Bird, Mill Reef, Shergar, Reference Point and Sea The Stars.
Together with the Two Thousand Guineas and the St. Leger Stakes, the Derby forms the so-called ‘Triple Crown’, last won by Nijinsky, ridden by Lester Piggott, in 1970. Piggott is also the is the most successful jockey in the history of the Derby, having ridden the first of his nine winners, Never Say Die, in 1954 and the last, Teenoso, in 1983.