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What is the Epsom Derby?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Epsom Derby is a prestigious British horse race run on the flat at Epsom Downs, in County Surrey. The Derby is the second race in the British Triple Crown, and it is considered one of the British Classic Races. Derby weekend is a big event in Surrey, because thousands of spectators descend upon the racecourse for the races and other Epsom Derby events, including high profile members of society such as the ruling monarch of England.

Epsom Downs has been a site of horse racing and informal meets for several hundred years. In 1779, Edward Smith Stanley, the 12th Earl of Derby, established a race called the Epsom Oaks, which was run by fillies on the flat. The race turned out to be hugely successful, and in the next year, the first Epsom Derby was run. The Epsom Derby is open to both colts and fillies, and it has been won by six fillies in its history.

Entrance in the Epsom Derby is restricted to three year old horses, who are by convention considered the cream of the crop. Horses which win the Epsom Derby can command high prices at stud, since the race has so much social and cultural significance, and it is a challenging, grueling course which demands a great deal of the equine athletes who compete in it. By tradition, the Epsom Derby is run over one and a half miles, a distance which is sometimes called the “Derby Distance” in a reference to the Epsom Derby itself.

By tradition, the Epsom Derby is held on the first weekend in June, as part of the Derby Festival. Other races including the Epsom Oaks are run during the festival weekend, which also includes receptions, dinners, dances, and other events. Some festival events are open to the public, while others require tickets or invitations for attendance. Likewise, any member of the public may attend the Epsom Derby, although tickets for good seats can be hard to come by.

Around the world, other prestigious races are named for the Epsom Derby, probably in the hopes of building positive associations. In the United States, for example, horses compete in the Kentucky Derby, and fillies may also compete in the Kentucky Oaks, which is traditionally held on the day before the Derby. The Kentucky Derby, however, is not held over the traditional Derby Distance; instead, this distance is reserved for the Belmont Stakes, another race in the American Triple Crown.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments
By anon272707 — On Jun 02, 2012

Wow jonrss, that's a not only great story but incredibly sad.

By sunshined — On Dec 04, 2011

Has anybody ever personally been to the Kentucky Derby? I never miss this on TV, but it has always been a dream of mine to attend this race.

I keep track of the derby winners list from year to year, and really enjoy reading about the horses, their owners and jockeys.

The few times I have bet on horses when I have gone to the races, I haven't done very well. I would go just to be a part of the whole event.

I can picture the sights and sounds of all the people and horses. I can almost feel the excitement and anticipation in the air as I am typing this.

Attending an event like this or the Epsom Derby is one thing that is on my bucket list.

By LisaLou — On Dec 04, 2011

@chivebasil - I have been around horses for most of my life, and there are definitely horses that love to race. The horses that I have owned that have any kind of racing blood in their line, just love to run.

Many thoroughbred horses are bred to race, and this is something that you don't change in them. Many of these race horses are also taken care of way better than most horses.

They have good living conditions, excellent vet care, good food and nutrition supplements and love to race.

I would love to see the Epsom Derby in person. We go to the horse races whenever we get the chance. I never get tired of watching the strength and stamina of these beautiful animals.

I don't always keep up with all the latest horse results, but would really enjoy watching something like this live and in person.

By chivebasil — On Dec 03, 2011

I have never really understood horse racing. Obviously I understand what is going on I just can't quite understand the appeal of the sport.

I have seen several of them live and I mostly get the feeling that the horse in uncomfortable and would rather be doing something else. I have to admit that I am an intense lover of animals and have advocated for their rights and humane treatment for years now.

I know that the horses used in races are treated pretty well all things considered and that the races themselves are not exactly brutal. Still, this ignores the principle that it is OK to exploit animals for the entertainment of humans. And that is what horse racing comes down to. Hopefully in the future we can put an end to this practice.

By jonrss — On Dec 02, 2011

I was lucky enough to see the Epsom Derby in the summer of 1987 when I was just a small boy of 5.

I went with my grandfather who was a huge horse and horse racing fan. He had been to almost every Epsom Derby for a streak of almost 40 years. 87 was the first year that he brought me and he died the next years so it is one of my best final memories of him.

I don't remember a lot from the race itself, certainly not the winner. But I remember being amazed at the size and strength of the horses and being amused by the spectacle of the whole thing. There is a lot going on for 5 year old eyes to take in. It was a lot of fun and one of my best memories of my grandfather.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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