The Investec Derby Festival & its Legendary History

The Investec Derby Festival. The greatest Flat race in the world. But how did it all begin?

According to legend, the 12th Earl of Derby held a party in which a new race was planned and a coin was flipped to decide the name.

Edward_Smith_Stanley, 12th Earl of Derby

The Derby Stakes (now known as the Investec Derby Festival) opened to three-year-old colts and fillies on Thursday 4 May 1780. There were nine runners that day and, although Lord Derby won the toss of the coin, it was Sir Charles Bunbury who owned the first winner, Diomed. The first four runnings were contested over one mile, but this was increased to the current distance of 1½ miles in 1784.


Within half a century, the Derby established itself as one of the premier sporting events in the racing year. Traditionally held on a Wednesday or Thursday, Derby Day became known as “the Londoners’ day out”. Huge crowds would travel from the capital whether they had their employers’ consent or not.

When Charles Dickens visited the Epsom Derby in the 1850s, musicians, clowns and conjurers entertained the crowds between races. The Derby Day, painted by William Powell Frith in 1858 depicts the scene. By the time the railway station was introduced at the Tattenham Corner, the fair was on for ten days and entertained hundreds of thousands of guests a year.

Derby Day by William Powell Frith c.1850s

In 1913, the Epsom Derby produced one of the most dramatic races in its entire history. A protesting suffragette – Miss Emily Davison – ran onto the track and brought down the King’s horse, Anmer.

Emily Davison Portrait

In 1995, the Derby Day was moved from Wednesday to Saturday to make it easier for guests to attend.

Today, with over 125,000 guests in attendence at the Investec Derby Festival each year, the festival has been dubbed the greatest Flat race in the world.

And we couldn’t agree more.


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