Chris Wood, Wednesday 21 March 2012
The Derby has held an uncanny fascination in the hearts and minds of the English for over two and a quarter centuries and an unrelenting grip as one of our elite sporting institutions.
In fact, the race only became the ‘Derby’ on the flip of a coin. Edward Smith-Stanley, the 12th Earl of Derby and Sir Charles Bunbury flipped a coin back in 1779 with the agreement that whoever won the toss would have the race named after them. How close we were, then, to having an annual flutter on the ‘Bunbury’ or the ‘Bunbury Stakes.’ Sir Charles had the last laugh – his horse, Diomed, won the inaugural race!
For many years the Derby was run on a Wednesday or a Thursday and, on the day, huge crowds would come from London, not only to see the race but to enjoy other entertainment. By the time that Charles Dickens visited Epsom Downs to view the race, in the 1850s, entertainers such as musicians, clowns and conjurers plied their trades and entertained the crowds, while others provided coconut stalls and other forms of entertainment. The crowded meeting was the subject of an 1858 painting by William Powell Frith titled The Derby Day. In the 1870s steam-driven rides were introduced, located at the Tattenham Corner end of the Downs and the fair lasted for ten days, entertaining hundreds of thousands. During the latter half of the 20th century, Derby Day became less popular; the race was moved from Wednesday to Saturday in 1995 in the hope of reviving the numbers who came to see it. As the number of people attending the fair dwindled it was reduced from ten days to three or four, and in 2009 the fairground was closed altogether, to allow the space to be used for other purposes.
Romany Travellers were always a part of the Derby scene, as they descended on the Downs from far and near to sell products and services to the race goers. Their colourful caravans and wagons were a familiar sight and their skills as horse traders and trainers were legendary. Writer, designer, artist and local eccentric Lady Sybil Grant (1879–1955), who had inherited the Durdans estate at epsom from her father, Lord Rosebery, allowed the travellers to camp on her land, and frequently joined them, staying in her own caravan. Another iconic image of the Derby Festival is the famous open top buses that line the closing yards of the track to the finish. Opposite the main stands, the Lonsdale Enclosure is the grass enclosure where you can get right up the rails to see the horses thunder past.
With its fascinating insight into Britain’s social structure and the participation of all classes, from Royalty to Romany gypsies, the Derby has long been a mirror held up to our unique society, its class system, inequalities, warts and all.