“4 May 1780 was the date of the first Derby. It was the first race on the card and the programme was enlivened by a main of cocks (cock-fighting) between birds belonging to the Gentlemen of Middlesex and Surrey and the representatives of the gentlemen of Wiltshire. Nine of the 36 horses entered went to the post, and the conditions being ‘50 guineas, half forfeit’, the prize was 1,075 guineas. The winner was Diomed, owned by Sir Charles Bunbury and ridden by Sam Arnull. Because the race was then deemed of no particular importance, few details concerning it have been handed down, and it is not even known how far Diomed finished in front of the runner-up, Major O’Kelly’s Budrow.’ So Roger Mortimer began his ‘History of the Derby Stakes,’ published in 1962.
From such humble beginnings the Derby was to grow into what became generally accepted as the highlight of the classic racing season. The winner hailed as the champion three-year-old colt of his year. The Oaks, named after Lord Derby’s summer residence nearby, had been instituted a year earlier and it became the classic championship for three-year-old fillies.
While Mortimer did not allude to the first television coverage of the Derby, a hazy memory remains of Lester Piggott on St Paddy beating Paddy Prendergast’s duo of Alcaeus and Kythnos in 1960. The Derby was to remain the only British classic to elude the master of Rossmore Lodge. The following year French ace Roger Poincelet brought the unconsidered Psidium literally from last to first to triumph at 66-to-1.
Harry Wragg, his trainer, thereby completed a rare double, having ridden Felstead to Derby success in 1928. Harry had actually doubled his riding score on Watling Street in 1942. However, wartime renewals run at Newmarket and known as the New Derby did not warrant the same kudos.
Vincent O’Brien, having made his name as a jumping trainer, opened his Derby account in 1962 when Larkspur won in the hands of ill-fated Australian Neville Sellwood. Actually, it might have been a National Hunt race, for seven came down in a pile-up on the descent of that precipitous Tattenham hill. It was France’s turn in 1963 when Relko ran away with the Derby, only to be withdrawn, lame at the start, when hot favourite for the Irish Sweeps Derby, won in his absence by Ragusa.
Christmas came early in 1964 for Irish punters, volubly relieved when Scobie Breasley brought Santa Claus in the nick of time to nab Indiana. Connections resolved there and then that Breasley would never again be entrusted with the mount. Nor was he, as Santa Claus went on to become the first to complete the Derby double since Orby in 1907, ridden now by the under-rated Willie Burke.
It was all about Lester Piggott and Vincent O’Brien when Sir Ivor triumphed in 1968. That euphoria died a death back on the Curragh when the dastardly Piggott, denied the ride through Vincent’s Irish riding commitments, brought about Sir Ivor’s downfall when he brought Ribero home ahead of the latest Irish superstar. Who will ever forget how the welcoming roar died in thousands of throats as Sir Ivor was clearly outstayed in the hands of Liam Ward and the deafening silence that welcomed the wretched Ribero back to the winner’s enclosure?
Two years later all was well again when Nijinsky maintained his unbeaten run at Epsom in Piggott’s hands before going on to take the Irish equivalent and make amends to Liam Ward, who recently celebrated his 90th birthday. Lester delivered for Vincent again at Epsom in 1972 when lifting Roberto home by a whisker from Rheingold. Alas for Johnnie Roe, Roberto had an off day at the Curragh, quite possibly marked by his Epsom exertions.
It was O’Brien and Piggott once again when The Minstrel belied his flashy appearance to triumph at Epsom. In this instance Piggott retained the mount when The Minstrel completed that elusive Derby double on the Curragh. Lester came in for possibly the easiest Derby winner of the fourteen he rode between Epsom and the Curragh when taking over from the suspended Walter Swinburn to cruise to success on Shergar in the 1981 Irish Derby.
What can we hope for in 2020? Well, that both the Derby and the Irish Derby take place, albeit in very strange circumstances. A friend from the Nijinsky era says he has taken a price about Waldkonig, a full-brother to Waldgeist, for the Epsom Derby. Let it be lucky!