This Sporting Life – Chapter 5

Epsom Derby & The Oaks

Epsom Downs, Home of the Derby
Epsom Downs, Home of the Derby by Colin Smith, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Epsom Derby

Today sees the 244th running of the Derby Stakes run on the famous Epsom Downs in Surrey, with the thirteen runners guaranteed to make it a highly competitive renewal.

The Derby is Britain’s richest flat horse race, and the most prestigious of the five Classics and it is therefore sometimes referred to as the “Blue Riband” of the turf.  According to legend, the decision to name the inaugural running of the race back in May 1780, was determined by the toss of a coin, with the 12th Earl of Derby making the right call “heads” over one of his party guests, Sir Charles Bunbury. As luck would have it, Diomed, owned by Bunbury, would win the first running of the race.

Up until 1838, the Derby was run on a Thursday afternoon depending on when Easter occurred, but then was moved to a Wednesday to fit in with the railways’ timetables. The free-to-attend infield, with its giant funfair and other attractions, historically helped the Derby draw crowds of well over 100,000. But in the latter half of the 20th Century, attendances began to dwindle significantly and this precipitated a further change, with the race moving to a Saturday slot from 1995 onwards.

Lester Piggott – Record Breaking Derby Winner

It is virtually impossible not to mention the Derby and Lester Piggott in the same breath.  His sad death last year brought back a plethora of memories of his winning rides. Piggott made the Derby his own. His record of nine wins in the race is unlikely to be ever beaten and certainly not in my life time. He won his first Derby aged 18, on the poetically named Never Say Die in 1954, and the last one, forty years ago on Teenoso.  I can also clearly remember taking a break from revising for my O-Level mocks in 1976 to see him romp home by three lengths on his unfancied mount, Empery, which went off at 10/1, much to the delight of many a housewife and once-a-year punters. Piggott’s penultimate winner came on The Minstrel following an epic dual with Hot Grove ridden by Willie Carson. Today that infamous rat-tat-tat whip action would undoubtedly have led Piggott to feel the wrath of the stewards and a lengthy suspension, but back in 1977, he was riding within the rules.

Carson though didn’t have to wait too long to ride his first Derby winner. That came in 1979 with Troy, winner of the 200th Derby and described by Carson as “the best horse I have ever ridden”. The following year, Carson would repeat the feat on Henbit. The race took place the week after my father had been made redundant and I remember him having a few quid of his redundancy pay on the winner. A rare feat in itself. Aged fifty at the time, my Dad never worked another day in his life. I was determined to do likewise and set in train a successful thirty-year career plan, which eventually led to me retiring in 2011, aged 50 years and five days.

Shergar: The Mystery of a £10m Horse

The winner of the 1981 race will however, live long in the memory for all the wrong reasons.  Ridden by his angelic 19-year-old jockey, Walter ‘The Choirboy’ Swinburn, Shergar won his Derby trial race by ten lengths. It prompted the Guardian’s racing correspondent to urge readers to “bet like men” for the Derby itself, which that year was held on Wednesday 3rd June. Commentating on the race, Peter Bromley memorably informed radio listeners that “there’s only one horse in it—you need a telescope to see the rest!”.  Sure enough, Shergar had lived up to his billing at Epsom, winning by ten lengths, with Swinburn easing him up for the final 100 yards. This remains the widest winning margin for any Derby winner.

A Famous Owner and his Infamous Horse
Aga Khan and Shergar | tikitoy998 | FlickrLicense: CC BY-SA 2.0

Flashforward to Tuesday 8 February 1983. At around 8:30 pm, three armed mask wearing men kidnapped Shergar and demanded £2 million for his release. No ransom was ever paid and the horse was never seen alive again, which has undoubtedly led to the ongoing public fascination on the circumstances of his disappearance even to this day.

Brave or Stupid?

In June 1986, I was working as an Executive Officer at Bradford Skillcentre. My wife of three years had recently left me and we would be divorced later in the year. I’d kept the house but my salary at the time was barely sufficient to keep up with the mortgage and other associated costs. The build-up to that year’s Derby had centred around Dancing Brave, a colt blessed with a phenomenal turn of foot, which was seen to devastating effect when he trounced a competitive field in the previous month’s running of the 2000 Guineas. Although some doubts were expressed about him staying the extra half mile of the Derby, the horse still went off a well-backed 2/1 favourite. His main rival, Sharastani, was ridden by young Wally Swinburn sporting the Aga Khan’s distinctive racing colours, green with red epaulettes, which were last seen to good effect on Shergar, five years earlier.  I couldn’t afford a bet in the race but had placed a £20 win on Swinburn’s mount, priced at 11/2, for my brother earlier that day. I managed to find a television to watch the race at work and saw Swinburn kick on around Tattenham Corner leaving Greville Starkey, Dancing Brave’s jockey, with an impossible task to peg him back. And despite a rapidly diminishing margin as the two hit the winning post, Sharastani just prevailed. Most racing historians agree that Dancing Brave was perhaps the unluckiest loser ever of this historic race.  That defeat would haunt Starkey to his grave.

The two horses would however meet again on Saturday 26 July in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, run at Ascot racecourse. This time Dancing Brave would be ridden by Pat Eddery and that tipped the balance in his favour as far as my brother was concerned. It was a working day for him, so he gave me another £20 to bet on the Brave. I was convinced that this was a mistake and that Sharastani, the 11/10 favourite, would again have the upper hand. I stood the bet. How wrong was I? Dancing Brave prevailed this time, belying his 6/4 odds, with my selection Sharastani trailing in a distant fourth. My brother called round that evening for his winnings and I duly handed over the £50, in full knowledge that I’d be walking to work for the next fortnight and probably going without lunch, for my stupidity. A hard lesson well and truly learned.

Nautilus Does The Derby

Over the subsequent decades, I’ve had mixed success in picking the winner of the Derby, but win, lose or draw I was determined to visit Epsom to see the race in the flesh and savour the special atmosphere. At the Dante meeting held at York in 2005, I’d backed the Michael Bell trained Motivator to win the feature race at even money, which he did comfortably despite hanging markedly left near the finish. The Derby was his next port of call. He was made ante-post favourite and I knew that he was the horse I had to follow in order to see the next chapter of his racing career unfold.

We arrived in London on the Friday afternoon before the big race and stayed overnight in a hotel near Victoria Train Station. I remember us arriving just in time to catch Eswarah, the 11/4 joint favourite, winning the Epsom Oaks Stakes, the third leg of the British Horseracing Classics series.

Suited and booted on Saturday morning, wifey and I caught the train to Epsom, studying the form in the Racing Post throughout the near one-hour long journey. The racecourse was well signposted from the station and we headed along the Downs Road with fellow racegoers to our destination, dodging the odd shower on the way.  We arrived on the racecourse at about 12.15pm. I immediately headed off towards the winning post for the obligatory photo opportunity.  We had pre-booked our tickets for the Tattersalls Enclosure but I noted that there were still some seats for sale in the Grandstand which would provide an uninterrupted view of the race and wider surrounds. I bought two. Not cheap but worth every penny. We grabbed a bottle of champagne and settled into our seats for the day’s action.

Nautilus, At the Winning Post
© Nautilus May 2023 Blog – Going Postal (

Our selections in the first three races all ran like the proverbial drain. I was almost beginning to regret making the journey to Epsom, but once our each-way selection, Fire Up the Band, won the fourth race for us priced at 14/1 we were back on an even keel from a betting perspective. The next forty minutes centred around the build-up to the big race. I knew I’d be backing Motivator but I was also wary of Frankie Dettori’s mount, Dubawi.  Despite numerous other classic winners, Dettori had failed on his previous 12 attempts to win the Derby. What if today was to be his big day?  Lucky Thirteen, maybe? Right. Decision time. Let’s have £20 win bet on Motivator and we’ll also have a £5 e/w covering bet on Dubawi. It’s nearing post time and the horses are parading in front of the stands. I’d been watching this race on television for almost thirty years and couldn’t remember a single occasion when I’d felt so nervous. My palms sweating and my stomach churning with anticipation.

At precisely 4.25pm the race gets underway. The horses leave the starting stalls almost in a line, although Almighty, the outsider of the four Aiden O’Brien runners is slow into pace. Although it’s a flat race the course is anything but flat. The climb from the start to the first bend rises forty metres, the same height as Nelson’s Column.   Hattan, a 25/1 outsider leads the field to the nine-furlong marker. The pace is steady. Motivator is held up in second place and I can spot Dettori further back in the royal blue silks straining to hold Dubawi who is pulling badly.  With six furlongs to go the horses enter Tattenham Corner, the historic sweeping downhill bend. As the runners gallop towards a mass of humanity, they are hit by a crescendo of noise cascading down from the double-decker buses lining the centre of the racecourse.

The Derby Field Sweeps Around Tattenham Corner into the Straight
Epsom Derby 2010 | Investec Epsom Derby 2010 – At First Sigh… | Flickr License: CC BY-SA 2.0

As the horses enter the final two furlongs, Johnny Murtagh kicks Motivator and they quickly establish a commanding lead. Dettori emergences from the pack and sets off to chase the leader but isn’t making much impression. The favourite is gone and flashes past the winning post five lengths ahead of his French rival, Walk in the Park, with Dettori trailing in a respectable third.  Both bets are up, we dash down towards to the famous winner’s enclosure to get a glimpse of our gallant horses and jockeys. Although there were still two more races to go, nothing was going to cap the excitement of backing the Derby winner. We collect our winnings from the Tote booth and set off back to the railway station without a care in the world.

As a footnote to the occasion, Motivator ran three more times in that season, but was beaten on each occasion. Following a minor leg injury whilst in training for a crack at the Breeders Cup he was retired immediately. At stud, his early career was modest, though in 2010 he sired the outstanding bay filly, Treve, who later went on to win the Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp in 2013 and 2014. The old boy, now aged 21 years old, is still very active at stud with fees of €5,000 a pop.  Dettori on the other hand would have to wait until 2007, for his first Derby winner, Authorized and then a further eight years for his second, Golden Horn. He’ll have one final chance to achieve the hattrick in this year’s race (see below).

Epsom Derby 2023

The first thing to note is that the start time for today’s Epsom Derby has been brought forward to 1.30pm to avoid a clash with the FA Cup Final between Manchester City and Manchester United, which kicks off at Wembley at 3pm.

Additionally, to add to the tension of the race, there is the spectre of protests and possibly even acts of sabotage by the increasingly militant animal rights activists.  Whether any of them are willing to show the same level of conviction as Emily Davison did back in 1913, I somehow doubt. But in this day and age and given what we witnessed at the Grand National recently, you never know.

Davison Under the Stricken King’s Horse. Pray Lightening Doesn’t Strike Twice….
Unclear. There are five photographs on the page, credited to C.N., Topical and Farringdon Photo Co., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In the race itself, following his disappointing effort in the 2000 Guineas, dashing my Triple Crown hopes, Auguste Rodin, the winter favourite initially drifted markedly out to odds of 9/2 from his 6/4 favouritism but is now back to around 3/1 and may well shorten further today. Despite this setback, his trainer, Aiden O’Brien, has remained bullish about his chances and with the ground likely to be more to his liking, the horse will therefore be carrying the Nautilus millions this afternoon, well a half a crown at least. O’Brien has remarkably won the Derby a record eight times already and will have three runners in this year’s race, including the lively outsider San Antonio, providing he can handle the ground, he is worth an each-way bet.

Team O’Brien Leaving Nothing to Chance
Father and son walking the course | Joseph O’Brien preparing… | Flickr License: CC BY-SA 2.0

Regrettably, this will be Frankie Dettori’s final Derby ride as he announced his retirement will occur at the end of this flat racing season.  His mount, the appropriately named Arrest, at odds of around 6/1, would clearly provide a fitting end to an illustrious career. Arrest won his Derby trial at Chester recently but that was on rain softened ground. So there has to be some doubt as to whether conditions will favour him today, particularly as the forecast prolonged spell of dry weather has prevailed although his jockey believes he’s got a favourable draw.

The betting market is jointly headed by Military Honour at around 7/2 mark. He is undoubtedly a worthy favourite having remained unbeaten in his four races to date and showed an impressive turn of foot in his Derby trial at Lingfield earlier this month.

This year’s Dante Stakes run at York featured a very strong field of potential Derby types, including The Foxes (won the race), White Birch (an unlucky second), Continuous (a staying on third) and Passenger (favourite on the day but finished a slightly disappointing fourth).  Any movement in the market for these horses today could provide a strong signal as to how they’ve come out of the race. If you were to twist my arm, I’d say that Continuous will probably come out on top this time and I am expecting a very strong run from him. (NOTE: NEED TO CHECK FINAL ENTRIES)

The Epsom Oaks

The Oaks Stakes is a Group 1 flat horse race in Great Britain open to three-year-old fillies and like the Derby is run at Epsom Downs over a distance of 1½ miles. It is the third of Britain’s five Classic races to be held during the season and is usually run on the day before the Derby. The event is named after The Oaks, an estate located to the east of Epsom, which was leased to the 12th Earl of Derby in the 18th century.

I have to say that this is perhaps the least favourite of the five British Classic races for me.  I’m uncertain why. It’s just never really captured my imagination despite the fact that there have been some outstanding winners in recent times, such as Enable in 2017, who subsequently went on to win the Prix De L’Arc de Triomphe twice. And not forgetting Love who clocked the fastest ever winning time in 2020 and Snowfall in 2021 who won the race by the widest winning margin, 16 lengths; both horses, incidentally, trained by the Irish magician, Aiden O’Brien.

I guess the reality is the Oaks, fine race that it is, will forever be overshadowed by the mighty Epsom Derby.

One thing that will be definitely hard to overlook this year is the absence of Queen Elizabeth II. The Queen rarely missed an Epsom Derby meeting and only failed to attend the fixture three times during her 70-year reign.

Thoroughbreds owned by The Queen had won four out of the five flat racing classics, with only the Derby eluding her. It is generally acknowledged, that it was the filly, Carrozza, who may well have fuelled Her Majesty’s passion for racing.   Carrozza was The Queen’s first British Classic winner only five years into her reign. Trained at Warren Place Stables in Newmarket by handler Noel Murless, the three-year-old was the 1957 winner of the Epsom Oaks. Sent into the lead in the closing stages of the contest by legendary jockey Lester Piggott, a late challenge by Irish raider Silken Glider ensured that the race had a tight finish, but the Royal filly prevailed in a photo.  Carrozza was led into the winner’s circle by her owner but the filly was initially reluctant but eventually acquiesced after The Queen gave the lead strap a “mighty jerk”.  Carrozza’s success at Epsom helped The Queen finish the 1957 season as Champion Owner.

HRH Queen Elizabeth II, Making One of Her Regular Visits to Epsom
English Derby at Epsom Downs (LOC) | Frissell, Toni,, 1907-1… | Flickr No Known Copyright Restrictions: Flickr: The Commons

The Oaks 2023

Well of course the race was run yesterday, so you can have a peak at today’s newspaper to find out the result, assuming that you didn’t watch it live during ITV’s magnificent coverage or perhaps either @Jesus or @Bob Crow backed the winner, in which case, you won’t hear the last of it for a very long time.

On paper at least this was a match between Savethelastdance and Soul Sister, who both won their trials in impressive fashion.

Ryan Moore, her jockey, was extremely complimentary of Savethelastdance after her Chester win; and it usually pays to heed his advice.  Despite winning all her runs to date on soft ground, better conditions shouldn’t have been a problem given her US breeding.  That said, as the late John McCririck would undoubtedly have reminded us, favourites do have a fairly poor record in the race, with just two of the last ten running’s having a successful market leader. I would still be very surprised if she had got beat.

Frankie Dettori was due to ride Soul Sister, in what was probably the 52-year-old jockey’s final attempt at winning the race. The filly, was visually impressive in her trial, the Musidora, run at York recently though the time for the race wasn’t exceptional. That said, there was still a very good chance that Soul Sister could help Frankie add to his tally of six previous races win in the race.

For the record, I put a few shillings each way on Soul Sister’s stable companion, Running Lion, following her stunning performance at the Guineas festival in the Howden Pretty Polly Stakes. So, you’ll all know by now if I’ve wasted my brass again.

Next time, we are off to Doncaster for the St Leger, the final leg of the British Horseracing Classics series. We will also have a brief look back at the results from this year’s running of the Oaks and Epsom Derby to see if they can offer any pointers for the race.    


Epsom Derby – Wikipedia
Lester Piggott – Wikipedia
Sporting Controversies: The brutal, sad and mysterious tale of Shergar – The Irish Times
Motivator (horse) – Wikipedia
Epsom Oaks – Wikipedia
Carrozza – Wikipedia

© Nautilus 2023