The Grand History of Epsom Derby

Epsom Derby needs no introduction. The most famous horse race in the world, it is steeped in history dating back centuries. The first recorded race meeting took place in 1661, and the first running of the Derby Stakes was in 1780.

Since then, the Derby has been held every year except for a break during World War I. It is truly a spectacle like no other, with huge crowds flocking to Epsom Downs each year to see the action unfold.

The Early Years

Derby Day soon became equally popular with the aristocracy and the working class. By the end of the 18th century, the Derby had become known as “the Londoners’ day out”.

The fascination of Derby Day attracted the aristocracy and the workman equally. Towards the end of the 18th century, Derby Day had established itself as a major sporting event and “the Londoners’ day out”, thanks to the large numbers who flocked to the Downs on Derby day.

Despite the Derby being a public event, most of those attending knew next to nothing about the actual horses, the jockeys or the times of the races. The serious betting was conducted between around two or three hundred noblemen who could afford the expense involved in following and betting on horse races.

For the masses, various gambling games were played inside the sprawl of tents across the Downs. These included games of chance such as dice and faro, cockfights, and even underground bare-knuckle boxing matches.

The Modern Derby

The event did not take on its modern form until 1829, when the first grandstand was built. This cost £20,000 and could accommodate 5,000 people.

Since then, the Derby has continued to evolve and grow. It is now a truly global event, with TV coverage beaming the action to millions of people around the world.

Nowadays, thanks to modern technology, anyone can research form and choose their own favourites at the Epsom Derby. And there have been some incredible horses over the years that have graced the Downs on Derby Day. Two of the most famous are Nijinsky and Shergar.


Arguably the most famous horse in Derby history, Nijinsky was an undefeated Triple Crown winner, having triumphed in the 2,000 Guineas, the Derby and St Leger in 1970. His Derby victory was particularly impressive, as he raced against a strong field that included the following year’s 2,000 Guineas winner, Brigadier Gerard.


Another incredible horse, Shergar, was an outstanding racehorse, winning 10 of his 11 career starts. He is best remembered for his performance in the 1981 Derby, where he romped to victory by ten lengths – the largest winning margin in Derby history.

Sadly, Shergar was kidnapped from Ballybough Stud in County Kildare, Ireland, in 1983 and was never seen again. It is thought that he was probably killed soon after his abduction.

The Derby is truly a unique event, with a rich history dating back centuries. It is a day out like no other, with huge crowds flocking to Epsom Downs each year to see the action unfold. From the early days when gambling games were played inside tents, to the modern era with its grandstands and huge prize money, the Derby is a truly spectacular event.