4 May 1780: the Derby is run for the first time

The Derby © Getty Images
The race could so easily have been called the ‘Bunbury’ but for the toss of a coin

The Derby (officially the Derby Stakes) is one of the world’s classic horse races and arguably the most prestigious, identifying itself as the “greatest flat race in the world”.

It all began in 1779, when Edward Smith-Stanley, AKA the 12th Earl of Derby, organised a meeting at Epsom Racecourse for him and his pals to race three-year-old fillies. He named that race the Oaks, after his estate – now a public park and golf course in Carshalton.

At that race, he and his chum Sir Charles Bunbury – something of a bigwig in horseracing circles – decided to run a second race the following year, this time for both colts and fillies (although the race was for colts and fillies, only six fillies have ever won, and few now enter).

The two friends  tossed a coin to decide the name – Derby won. But Bunbury’s horse, Diomed, won the race and Bunbury took home the prize of £1,065 15s – the equivalent of some £160,000 today.

These days, the Derby has the biggest prize in English racing – the total purse is £1,325,000, and in 2014, the winner took around £782,500. The winner of the Grand National, by contrast, which has to run nearly three times as far and jump over a series of potentially lethal fences, only got £561,000 in 2015; the winner of the Cheltenham Gold Cup took home a paltry £327,000.

It is hugely popular with owners and racegoers alike. In 2014, the race had an initial entry of over 400 horses – just 16 eventually ran. Upwards of 200,000 people cram on to Epsom Downs each year to watch the race.

Over its long history, there have been plenty of memorable moments. Probably the most famous is also the most tragic. In 1913, suffragette Emily Davison died after being hit by the King’s horse. There is still plenty of discussion over whether her death was suicide, or an accident.

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