The British horse-racing calendar contains five races known as Classics, all of which are run on an annual basis. The first of these in the calendar year is the St Leger, then there are the two Newmarket Races – the 1,000 and 2,000 Guineas – and finally the two great Epsom classics, The Oaks and The Derby.
Blue riband events
For racing aficionados The Oaks and The Derby are the blue riband events in the horse-racing calendar. These are the races that every jockey, trainer and owner dreams of winning, and the horse that wins is immortalised in the history of the turf.
The Oaks – a brief history
The Oaks was first run in 1779, and is named after The Oaks, an estate found east of Epsom. The race was the brainchild of the 12th Earl of Derby, who was leasing the estate. During a house party, the Earl and his friends had the idea of a race for three-year-old fillies (female horses) and the next year the inaugural race was held. Perhaps unfairly, the Earl was the first winner with his horse Bridget.
Frank Buckle is the jockey with the most Oaks winners to his name. Buckle won the race nine times, with his first win coming in 1797 on the horse Nike and his final victory in 1823, riding Zinc.
Modern day jockeys who have won The Oaks include Kieran Fallon and Frankie Dettori. Modern day leading trainers include the late Sir Henry Cecil who died in 2013 after saddling eight winners and Aiden O’Brien who has won the race four times. This year’s winner was Taghrooda, ridden by Paul Hanagan and trained by John Gosden.
The Derby, which came into existence one year later in 1780, has since taken over from all other flat races as the most prestigious horse race in the UK. Other events across the world have borrowed the name, for example the Kentucky Derby in the USA and the Australia Derby. The Derby is 1 mile and four furlongs, which is approximately 2,500 metres and it is contested by fillies (female horses) and colts (male horses) running together.
The Earl of Derby’s legacy
The race was conceived as a celebration by the 12th Earl of Derby after his horse, Bridget, won the Oaks a year earlier. The first race was won by Diomed, a colt owned by Sir Charles Bunbury, who was Steward of the Jockey Club – the body that governs British horse-racing. The Earl of Derby won his own event in 1787, with a horse called Sir Peter Teazle.
The Epsom Fair
Originally, The Derby was run on a Wednesday, and in the days preceding it and following it a huge fair was held, called the Epsom Fair. This attraction was made possible by the introduction of stream trains, which meant people could travel from London and other parts of the UK to spend a day at the races before sampling the delights of the fair. The tradition of the fair and the horse-racing continued well into the 20th century until dwindling numbers saw the race moved to a Saturday. The fair was finally closed in 2009.
Lester Piggott, King of the Turf
The most successful jockey in The Derby was Lester Piggott who won a record of nine races. His remarkable run of success spanned three decades – he first won on Never Say Die in 1954 and his final victory came in 1983 on Teenoso. The most successful trainer title is shared between Robert Robson who had seven winners during the early part of the 19th century and Fred Darling who recorded seven winners in the 1920s. This year’s Derby winner was Australia, ridden by Joseph O’Brien.
Both the Oaks and the Derby are run during June.