Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Ode to Epsom

The following was first published in Thoroughbred Times Today on June 3, 2011.

Like many other classic races around the world, the Belmont Stakes was modeled on the Epsom Derby, which will be run for the 232nd time tomorrow—if you count wartime Derbys that were run at Newmarket in 1915-18 and 1940-45.

More accurately known simply as the Derby Stakes, the true father of all classic races is the third oldest classic in the world. Both the St. Leger Stakes (G1), founded in 1776, and the Derby's companion race for fillies, the Epsom Oaks, inaugurated a year earlier than the Derby, are older. But the Derby has always been the most prestigious horse race in England, and that is why virtually every country around the world copied it as closely as local conditions allowed.

France came first, kicking off the Prix du Jockey-Club as the French equivalent of the Derby in 1836, and other countries followed almost as soon as their racing programs stabilized. In many cases it was the invention of local Derbys, as well as echoes of the other English classics, the Oaks, Two Thousand Guineas, One Thousand Guineas, and St. Leger, that formed the foundation for stabilizing those racing and breeding programs.

That was certainly the case in the United States. When racing resumed in New York at Jerome Park late in 1865 after the conclusion of the long and bloody Civil War, foundation of a race modeled after the Derby was one of the first orders of business for the wealthy bankers and industrialists intent on putting the horrors of the war well behind them. Leonard Jerome, though, went against tradition by naming his Derby equivalent the Belmont Stakes, after his primary financial backer, August Belmont I.

As American racing consolidated its shift from four-mile heat racing that had dominated prior to the War Between the States, other states soon followed suit, most notably Kentucky, which inaugurated its equivalent Derby in 1875. Over the years, the prestige of all these races waxed and waned with the times, and it was not until after World War I that the Kentucky race began to gain preeminence in America, and, in some senses, the world.

By that time the Kentucky Derby had been reduced from its original distance of 1 ½ miles to 1 ¼ miles, in deference to its position on the calendar a month before the Epsom classic. Meanwhile, the Belmont was raced at several distances over its first 60 years and did not settle at its current distance until 1926.

None of these global imitators, though, truly could match Epsom's unique conditions. The greatness of the Epsom Derby as the truest test of the Thoroughbred lies in the complex terrain of the racecourse itself. Myth has it that there is not one level square foot of ground on the wide, sweeping, horseshoe-shaped course. That is not quite true, but, as with most myths, there is truth in the thought.

The Derby course begins far across the chalky Surrey Downs from the grandstand, and climbs rather steeply uphill around a gentle right-handed curve for most of the first half-mile. As the course straightens out briefly at the top of the hill, the horses cross to the left hand rail and begin the steep descent around a left-handed curve to Tattenham Corner, 3 ½ furlongs from the finish. The course slopes downhill for another furlong or so before rising sharply again over the last furlong and a half.

It is a roller-coaster ride that tests a young three-year-old in more different ways than any other racecourse in the world. The horse must have the stamina to cope with a breakneck pace up that killing first half mile, the agility to turn right, turn left, and run uphill and down at racing pace. Then he must be able to accelerate in the last two furlongs on a course that doesn't just look to him by then as if it is tilting toward the inside rail. The natural camber of the land actually does slope from the outside toward the inner rail in addition to being uphill at that point. Thus countless tired horses have staggered toward the inside rail in Epsom's final furlong.

That is why the Derby remains the Derby. Non-stayers cannot win. Plodders without speed and acceleration cannot win. Horses who easily become unbalanced and lose their action cannot win.

Federico Tesio was right. The Thoroughbred is what it is because of a piece of wood—the finishing post at Epsom.


  1. Bravo, John! Lest we forget the most important thing, that racing is a test, not a beauty pageant nor a commercial venture, exactly.

    And as Tesio proved time and again, the horses who perform well at Epsom, even if they cannot quite win the race, make damned good stallions for the owner-breeder to use.

    One fascinating sidelight to Montjeu's individual success with sons at Epsom is that he wasn't judged quite the horse for the course himself but breeds on a better type for it.


  2. Frank, it has never been clear to me why Coolmore decided not to run Montjeu in the Derby. It is worth noting, though, that their Irish Guineas winner Saffron Walden started third favorite at Epsom, so they weren't exactly without ammunition. Certainly Montjeu is a taller, leggier type than Galileo, and his temperament was also much more of an issue in training, and I suspect strongly that that had a lot to do with it. John Hammond would have been much more comfortable running the horse just down the road from his stable than exposing him to the madness that is Epsom on Derby day and possibly ruining a high-strung horse forever.
    That may well have been wise, because I remember well talking to John a couple of days before the Breeders' Cup the following year, and he made it clear without being free to say it in so many words that he thought Montjeu had had too many hard races too close together and had called it a day.

  3. Excellent post, John.