Isolating any single Derby for special mention is difficult, but if choice has to be made that of 1840 has much to commend it. That year Queen Victoria attended the race for the first time with the Prince Consort, a gesture that acted like a tonic, for there was a danger of the sport languishing.
We are apt in our indolent English, manner to take Derby Day for granted. It is a mistake because this race is unique in the year of sport, even though the ingredients remain the same. Each year we come near to suffocation in the sprawling ant-heap of humanity. The official attendance is usually in the region of 500,000 ... an impressive figure, but mute when it comes to atmosphere and types. The fashionable enclosures are no guide. They only touch the hem. To get the best out of the Derby, you want to sink your identity on the free side of the course. Never mind the tiered stands. You can have your fill of these at Ascot. Exchange champagne for lemonade by the quart and jellied eels. Mingle with the crowds that swarm across the Downs. You soon find that the exotic dresses on the fashionable side of the rails are not the only ones to be worn with pride. The colours are as exaggerated as if touched by the brush of Frith. It is a caricaturist's dream.
By any standard the scene is bizarre. Tipsters prancing about with dramatic gesture. Hoarse-voiced bookies on their flimsy scaffolds. The voice of the crowd is deafening. The tempo is determined by the clock. As the minute hand draws nearer to the big race, the pandemonium reaches a fresh crescendo. The atmosphere reeks of beer and bodies. The stands are like quivering patterns of animated life. In ten minutes the name of the winner will be engraved out of uncertainty in the records.
The tension becomes tangible as the ribbon of colour, maybe thirty-odd strong, gradually takes shape. The sweep of Tattenham Corner is the ideal place to catch the outline of crouching jockeys in vivid silks sweeping along like a wave. For a moment a chestnut holds the lead with smooth sweeping strides, but the order quickly changes as the horses enter the straight. The bedlam of sound gradually takes shape and the winner is known. The race takes about two minutes, thirty-odd seconds. It is remarkable to think that such a brief span of time can attain such importance in the minds and lives of hundreds of thousands of people scattered all over the world.
It is small wonder that roughly seventy years ago Henry James reacted as he did to the scene. He was describing the America which formed the background of his fellow-countryman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, when he was a youth. And he drew up a list of the things that Hawthorne missed and his country then lacked. It begins with a State, includes church, universities, cathedrals, palaces, court, and ends with "No Epsom, nor Ascot". This shrewd onlooker realized that behind the traditions and flimsy fagade of convention, Epsom and the Derby form an essential part of the national life of England. Today they certainly rank as outstanding hours in the crowded calendar of the Season.
Each year it is tempting to think of that particular Derby as outstanding and of special significance. On the other hand, honesty compels the admission that over 170 Derby Days have more than had their quota of incident and excitement. Every year people spend the night on the Downs in cars, tents and caravans. The traffic congestion is tackled by mobile police patrols, some 2,000 uniformed men being mobilized to control the crowds. That is now the accepted pattern. But think for a moment of the Edwardian Derby Day. The pattern was similar, with certain differences. Four-in-hands driven by military-looking men in bold check trousers. Landaus, brakes, chaises, gigs, brightly-painted dog-carts. Cockney costers on their mokes. Such was the traffic in Edwardian days. At night the King entertained the Jockey Club at the Palace. John Corlett led his string of seventeen hansoms from one public-house to another. Piccadilly and Haymarket echoed to the sound of festivities. Derby Night was something to remember.
Even more memorable must have been that May day in 1780 when the race was inaugurated. The setting was post-chaise and cabriolet with a blending of cambric, quizzing glasses, quivering fans and powdered heads. It was indeed a fashionable gathering, fitting support to Edward Smith Stanley, twelfth Earl of Derby, who had decided, over a glass of after-dinner port, that it would be amusing to run a race for three-year-olds and call it the Derby, in the same way that he had inaugurated the Oaks in 1779, the name being derived from his shooting-box at Woodmansterne.
I can find no list that records the horses entered for the first Derby, although history confirms that nine horses cantered to the starting-post. We know, further, that the race was won by a horse called Diomed, owned by that sporting squire of Suffolk, Sir Charles Bunbury, of Mildenhall. He sold the horse in 1798, then twenty-one years old, to an American for fifty guineas. Diomed was later re-sold to Colonel John Hoome, of Virginia. The influence of this horse on the American thoroughbred at stud was immense. He died at the age of thirty-one years. I always read his obituary with quiet amusement: "There was almost as much mourning in the old colony at his demise as there was at the death of George Washington. The Virginians regarded the death of Diomed as a great national catastrophe." I can only assume that the Virginians were either exceptional horse-lovers or else a trifle shaky over their national history.
We know other things about that first Derby Day. The twelfth Earl, for instance, was enthusiastic about cock-fighting, so much so that it was said he used to have a cock-pit made in a drawing-room. The breed of game-cock that he raised at Knowsley were noted for their fighting spirit. One of the rival attractions at the inaugural Derby was a main of cocks between the combined birds of Middlesex and Surrey against the birds of the gentlemen of Wiltshire. Unfortunately I have been unable to verify the result.
It would be wrong, however, to infer that horse-racing at Epsom began with the Derby. There is a reference to a race-meeting as far back as 1648, whilst there are many allusions to racing in the reigns of Charles, William III and Mary, Queen Anne and the early Georges, until the time of George III when the meetings at Epsom became linked with the Derby. Looking In this way through the records it is possible to trace a common routine-pattern. Eleven o'clock marked the beginning of racing, followed by an interval at one o'clock for lunch in town, after which the racing programme would continue for a couple more hours. Several unusual incidents are recorded, among them a peculiar one that happened at the 1766 October Meeting: "A curious accident befell the Jockey who rode the winner of the Sweepstakes. Just before he came in at the Winning-Post, being crossed by a gentleman on horseback, the rider was thrown, but his leg hanging in the stirrup, the horse of course carried his weight in, and won miraculously without hurting his rider." It is somewhat reminiscent of an incident that took place in the 1952 Derby. The second horse. Gay Time, threw its jockey, Lester Piggott, just after passing the winning-post. The jockey had to return to the unsaddling enclosure minus horse and saddle. A stable boy rode the horse back.
Isolating any single Derby for special mention is difficult, but if choice has to be made that of 1840 has much to commend it. That year Queen Victoria attended the race for the first time with the Prince Consort, a gesture that acted like a tonic, for there was a danger of the sport languishing. From that moment racing became fashionable. Disraeli referred to it as the "Blue Riband of the Turf". Parliament adjourned to watch it. During the Crimea the winner was inserted in General Orders. The Derby has had imitators, but none has carried the same appeal ... it is still unique . . . with patronage ranging from monarch to coster.