Epsom Downs Racecourse is located between Epsom, Tadworth and Langley Vale in Surrey. The course can be accessed via Junction 9 of the M25. The Derby Festival meeting is sign-posted on all major approach roads. There are three railway stations within 3 miles of the track. Tattenham Corner is just half a mile away, Epsom Downs one mile and Epsom 1.8 miles. A frequent shuttle bus operates on race days.
Epsom is a switchback course of just over a mile and a half and is regarded as the ultimate test of the racehorse. The Derby and Oaks start with an uphill climb followed by a turning descent. The notorious Epsom camber takes the runners towards the far rail up the straight which finishes with a steep rise in the final furlong.
Soft ground usually results in the runners heading for the stands’ side rail in search of the better ground. The five furlong course is the fastest in the world and high numbers have a slight advantage in big fields.
Epsom Horse Racing History
Epsom is famous for staging The Derby, the premier English Classic and the race after which all other “Derby” races are named.
Racing on the Epsom Downs dates back to 1661 and had two established meetings by 1730. In 1769, the legendary Eclipse had his first victory at the track. His descendants include Secretariat and Phar Lap and his skeleton stands at the Royal Veterinary College in Hertfordshire.
The 12th Earl of Derby created the Oaks in 1780 and the following year The Derby was introduced. The most tragic moment in Derby history came in 1913 when suffragette Emily Davison threw herself in front of the King’s horse and later died from her injuries.
The racecourse can accommodate crowds of up to 130,000, including the free vantage points on the Epsom Downs.
The racing year at Epsom revolves around the Epsom Derby in the first week in June. The Derby was traditionally run on the first Wednesday of the month but was moved to the Saturday in 1995. It is preceded on Friday by the Group 1 Epsom Oaks and Coronation Cup. There are also two Group 3 races at the meeting with the Princess Elizabeth Stakes and Diomed Stakes.
The meeting in April features the Blue Riband Derby trial and two of the oldest handicaps in the racecourse calendar. The venue also stages several popular evening meetings during the summer.
The Derby stands out as the Blue Riband event of the flat racing season. Epsom has been the home of the Derby since the inaugural running won by Diomed in 1780. The only exceptions were the War years when it was moved to Newmarket. Diomed is remembered by a one-mile all-aged race on Derby day.
The Derby is a Classic race over a mile and a half for three-year-old colts. It is open to fillies but only rarely do they run here in preference to the Oaks, the championship race for three-year-old fillies over the same distance. The Derby is the middle leg of the English Triple Crown, made up by the 2,000 Guineas and St Leger. Nijinsky was the last of fifteen horses to complete the hat-trick in 1970.
The City and Suburban Handicap is a ten furlong handicap dating to 1851. The Great Metropolitan Handicap dates back to 1846 and both races take place at the Spring meeting.
The greatest ever Derby winner is a subject for debate but many experts believe that Sea Bird’s mercurial victory in 1965 tops the list. Triple Crown winner Nijinsky (1970) has to be right up there with the very best.
Other famous names that will forever be linked with Derby glory include Crepello (1957), Mill Reef (1971), Troy (1979), Nashwan (1989) and Sea The Stars (2009). Shergar’s ten lengths victory in 1981 remains the widest margin win in the race. The tragic events that followed Shergar’s retirement have only served to make the colt a household name.
One of the most popular winners of The Derby has to be Pinza, ridden by Sir Gordon Richards in 1953. The recently knighted jockey had failed to win the race in 27 attempts and this was his final chance in the Classic.
Lester Piggott is the leading jockey of all-time in The Derby with eight winners. His first came at the age of eighteen aboard 33-1 shot Never Say Die (1954). Perhaps his greatest moment was when driving The Minstrel home ahead of Hot Grove in 1977. Few who watched the race believe that The Minstrel would have won with any other jockey in the saddle.
Notable winners of the Oaks include Petite Etoile (1959), Sun Princess (1983), Oh So Sharp (1985), Salsabil (1990), Balanchine (1994), Ouija Board (2004) and Enable (2017). Oh So Sharp was one of eight Oaks winners for the late Sir Henry Cecil and also won the 1000 Guineas and the St Leger.
There were tremendous scenes of celebration in 1977 when Her Majesty The Queen’s Dunfermline won the Oaks. She went on to add the St Leger when defeating Alleged, subsequent winner of the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in 1977 and 1978. Aidan O’Brien has dominated the Oaks in recent years, Forever Together taking his tally to seven in 2018.
O’Brien’s St Nicholas Abbey (2011, 2012 and 2013) provided three of a record eight victories for the Irish trainer in the Coronation Cup. Petite Etoile (1960 and 1961), Triptych (1987 and 1988) and Warrsan (2003 and 2004) each had two victories in the race. Other famous winners of the Coronation Cup include Park Top (1969), Mill Reef (1972), Time Charter (1984) and Cirrus des Aigles (2014).
Top Jockeys and Trainers at Epsom Downs
Roger Varian is the trainer to follow at Epsom, averaging a near 40% strike-rate over the past three seasons. Following George Baker’s runners would have yielded a handsome level stakes profit over the same period.
Silvestre de Sousa rides Epsom particularly well and has won nearly three times as many races as his nearest rival in the last three years. Franny Norton also has a good strike-rate here while Edward Greatrex does well with limited opportunities.