Epsom racecourse in Surrey is situated on Epsom Downs, a few minutes drive from Epsom town centre. It is one of the most famous courses in the world and also one of the most idiosyncratic and challenging. Its horse shoe shaped track is a mile and a half long and run in a left-handed direction.
Not long after the start, there is an extremely challenging rise of about a hundred and forty feet over around three furlongs. Having reached the top of the hill, there is a roller coaster descent towards Tattenham Corner and the home straight, which has a punishing camber which can prove to be the undoing of many horses. The final furlong towards the winning post is again uphill.
The first race meeting held on the Downs was in 1661 and this continued up until 1780, when the Oaks was established. This began as an opportunity for the 12th Earl of Derby and his friends to race their three year old fillies and was named the Oaks after the Earl’s estate in Carshalton Beeches.
It proved such a success that the following year, a race was introduced for colts and fillies on the same course. The Earl of Derby and his friend, Charles Bunbury, tossed a coin to see whom it should be named after, with the Earl winning. The original races were held over a mile, with the extra half mile near Tattenham Corner being added in 1784
The infamous 1913 Derby took place on the fourth of June and was to prove a remarkable event in the history of the Suffragette movement. At that time the Derby attracted not only a large crowd but also the elite of society, including members of the Royal family.
The King’s horse, ridden by Herbert Jones, was third from last as the field rounded Tattenham Corner. Suddenly, a young woman, Emily Wilding Davison, crept under the barrier and threw herself in front of the King’s horse, leaping at the reins and shouting “Votes for Women!” Not surprisingly, she took the full force of the horse at speed and was seriously injured.
She was taken to the Cottage Hospital in Epsom, where she died four days later from internal injuries, never having regained consciousness. The horse finished the race without his jockey who was also injured and had to be stretchered off the course.
Although the Derby and the Oaks are the most famous of Epsom’s races, other notable events include
- Blue Riband Trial Stakes
- Coronation Cup
- Diomed Stakes
- Princess Elizabeth Stakes
Epsom Derby is one of the five English Classic races run over the flat and can only be entered by horses that are three years old. Although it is open to both colts and fillies, it is not normally entered by fillies these days. Offering prize money of over a million pounds, only horses of the highest calibre enter and it is a true test of their stamina and athleticism.
The current Agha Khan has continued his family’s tradition of Derby success with four winners, the last of which was Sinndar in 2000. The ruling family in Dubai, the Maktoums, have also had notable success with three winners in the last ten years.
Despite the fact that the Oaks was started a year earlier, it somehow plays second fiddle to the Derby, possibly because it is restricted to fillies. Also one of the five English Classics, the Oaks can only be entered by three year olds. The two most prolific winners in recent years have been Henry Cecil and Aidan O’Brien with four and two winners apiece.
Racing is restricted at Epsom this season because of the second stage of the Grandstand Redevelopment Programme. The 2008 Derby Festival will, however, be held on June 6th (the Oaks) and 7th (the Derby)
A strict dress code applies at the Derby Festival for those in the Queen’s Stand. If you are in the grandstand, the code is smart casual, although a large number of people like to dress up for the occasion.
Queen’s stand – Oaks
jacket, collar and tie for men and smart day dress for women with optional hat.
Queen’s stand – Derby
morning dress (black or grey) with top hat, or service dress for men and formal day dress or trouser suit and hat for women.
Eating and Drinking
There is a large range of options for eating and drinking at Epsom, from a hog roast on The Hill to a seafood bar at the Queen’s Stand. Picnics are allowed at various locations and even small barbecues can be enjoyed on The Hill. Several hospitality packages costing hundreds of pounds are available and past menus can be viewed here.
Because the racecourse is in a public area, it is in theory possible to watch the race free of charge, making it at one point the most well attended sporting event of the year. It is, however, almost impossible nowadays to get a good view without paying.
Tickets are now available for the 2008 Derby Festival and can be bought online
- Queen’s Stand – 2 day badge – £135
- Junior Queen’s Stand – 2 day badge – £85
Ladies’ Day (the Oaks)
- Queen’s Stand – 1 day badge – £65
- Grandstand – £28
- Grandstand Groups of 12 or more (bought before May 17th) – £24
- Tattenham Straight – £15
- Lonsdale Pedestrian – £15
- Hill Cars – £25
- Grandstand – £32
- Grandstand Groups of 12 or more (bought before May 17th) – £30
- Tattenham Straight – £20
- Lonsdale Pedestrian – £20
- Hill Cars – £30
A Tattenham picnic package is available (in advance) for two, at a cost of £110 for the Oaks and £140 for the Derby. This gives admission to the Tattenham picnic enclosure and a picnic box from Carluccio’s.
The racecourse can be accessed from Junctions 8 or 9 of the M25. AA signs mark the way to the racecourse from all major approaches.
Trains from London Victoria and Waterloo serve Epsom station, from where the racecourse is a ten minute taxi or bus ride.
The stations at Tattenham Corner (half a mile away) and Epsom Downs (a mile away) can be used as an alternative if you do not mind walking to the racecourse.
Heathrow and Gatwick airports are both about 25 miles from the racecourse.