About the Derby and Derby betting
The Derby is, without doubt, the most famous horse race in the English-speaking world. And yet the Epsom race that has given its name to big sporting events in many different sports around the globe was nearly called the Bunbury.
The original Derby – sometimes called the Epsom Derby – has been held on Epsom Downs, near London, since 1780. The 12th Earl of Derby arranged a race for three-year-old fillies on the Downs in 1779 which he called The Oaks, after his nearby country estate. His friends and he enjoyed the sporting occasion so much that he arranged another race the following year, which would be open to colts as well as fillies.
The new race was again restricted to three-year-olds – the idea being that the Oaks and the new race would be the definitive (or "classic") races to find the best horses of each generation (which is why people still refer to the top three-year-old thoroughbreds as the “classic generation”).
The 12th Earl and his friends called the new race the Derby. The race was originally run over a mile, although it was extended to a mile-and-a-half, and quickly became horseracing’s blue-riband event.
The winners’ enclosure was populated with Viscounts, Earls, Dukes and Princes from the Derby’s very first years. Sheikhs and Princesses would later join the list of winning owners as once, in 1909, did the King of England himself.
The Epsom Derby and the suffragette movement
The next King to send out a Derby runner found things somewhat harder when, in 1913, a suffragette called Emily Davison threw herself at his horse Anmer to draw attention to her cause. She chose the Derby because of its profile as the biggest sporting event of its day, where she would be guaranteed publicity around the British Empire and beyond.
She got the publicity she wanted, and film footage even exists of her actions. Sadly, though, she was trampled to death in the process.
Women like Davison were fighting to get the right to vote at the time, and Davison’s actions gained her heroine status among many. King George V, on the other hand, was said to be more concerned to find out which horse had won in Anmer’s absence.
The legendary Lester Piggott has the best record of any jockey to ride in the Derby. He rode nine Derby winners, from Never Say Die in 1954 (when Piggott was 18) to Teenoso in 1983. Current housewife’s favourite Frankie Dettori seemed doomed never to win a Derby until Authorized romped home in 2007.
The record for trainers in the modern era falls to Vincent O’Brien – no relation to the modern Irish grand master Aiden – who sent out six winners between 1962 and 1982, including the famous Nijinsky in 1970 – last horse to win the English Triple Crown of 2,000 Guineas, Derby and St Leger.
Other famous horses to win the Derby include Shergar in 1981, whose ten-length winning margin remains the largest ever.
Picking a Derby winner
The ante-post betting market for the Derby is a lively one and Derby odds are known well in advance. The best-backed horses have a decen record in the race, too; the Derby has been won by the first or second favourite 28 times since 1965.
Those preferring longer odds should note that, while three 100/1 shots have won the Derby, none has done so since 1913. The 1990s were a good time to pick a good outside bet, with four winners in a row coming in at odds of 11/1 or greater. Fav backers were also hit by the non-performance of 4/5 "certainty" Tenby in 1993 and Entrepreneur's failure (at odds of 4/6) in 1997.
Derby tips can be picked up from the Derby trials at Chester and Lingfield, although the Dante Stakes at York has been a better guide to Derby performance in recent years. North Light in 2004, Motivator in 2005 and Authorized in 2007 all won at Epsom after winning the York race.
Perhaps more interestingly no horse has lost the York trial and won the Derby, a fact that prompts many punters to rule out all Dante runners except the winner each year before they bet on the Derby.
The Derby’s place in culture
By the close of the nineteenth century the race had become the most eagerly anticipated sporting contest of “the season”, the summer-long round of socialising at sporting events favoured by the British aristocracy in Victorian England.
Sportsmanlike heroes in the genteel ripping yarns of John Buchan are inevitably blessed with an ability to recite a list of Derby winners from memory, as are the clubbable characters of P G Wodehouse.
The Derby’s place in sporting culture at the time gave birth to the use of the word “derby” to signify any big sporting contest.
The word was particularly taken up in the USA, which gave the name to its own premier horse race for thoroughbreds (the Kentucky Derby) as well as lesser contests like boxcar derbies, demolition derbies and roller derbies.
Back in Britain the word became attached to games in professional football between two rival teams from the same area, like the Manchester derby between City and United, or the Glasgow derby between Rangers and Celtic, for example.
The housebuilding company Persimmon took its name from the 1896 Derby winner.
How the Derby got its name
And yet the original race, the Epsom Derby, very nearly wasn’t called the Derby at all.
Before the first race was run in 1780 the 12th Earl and his friend Sir Charles Bunbury tossed a coin to see which of their names would be given to the new horse race.
But for the fact that the Earl called correctly we would all be looking forward to the Merseyside bunbury between Liverpool and Everton this weekend.