In Britain, and the rest of Europe, a Group One race is a horse race of the highest calibre, as designated by the European Pattern Committee. Group One races include some of the most prestigious, valuable and historic races in Britain, over distances between 5 furlongs and 2 miles 4 furlongs, on Grade One racecourses, such as Ascot, Newmarket and York.
Some Group One races, such as the ‘Classic’ races – that is, the 1,000 Guineas, 2,000 Guineas, Oaks, Derby and St. Leger – are restricted to certain age groups and others, such as the Nassau Stakes and Sun Chariot Stakes, are restricted to a specific gender. However, generally speaking, horses of the same age and gender compete at level weights in Group One races, with weight-for-age and weight-for-sex allowances for three-year-olds competing against older horses and fillies and mares racing against colts and geldings, respectively.
Of course, Group One races can occasionally be downgraded; to maintain Group One status, over a three-year period, the average official rating of the first four horses home in the race in question must be 115, or more. From 2018, in Group One races, other than two-year-old races, in Britain, a horse must have achieved an official rating of 80 to be allowed to run in the first place.
Yes, it did. For most of the twentieth century, the Derby was run on Epsom Downs on the first Wednesday in June. The race was staged on a Tuesday between 1915 and 1918 and on a Saturday between 1942 and 1945, when run, as the ‘New Derby’, at Newmarket, and on a Saturday again between 1947 and 1950, and in 1953, following its return to Epsom Downs. However, in the face of dwindling attendances, the last Derby to be run in its traditional Wednesday slot was the 1994 renewal, won by Erhaab, and since then the race has been run on a Saturday afternoon. The move was not universally welcomed and was subsequently described by various commentators as ‘a mistake’ or even ‘a catastrophic blunder’. Nevertheless, at one point, in the face of declining TV audience figures, a Saturday evening slot for the premier Classic was mooted by the racecourse executive at Epsom Downs.
The ‘Spring Double’ and the ‘Autumn Double’ still exist, insofar as the races that comprise both still exist, although they are rarely referred to as such and do not attract the same attention, in the press or elsewhere, that was once the case. Traditionally, the ‘Spring Double’ consisted of the Lincoln Handicap – the feature race on the first Saturday of the Flat season – and the Grand National, usually run a week or two later. The Lincoln Handicap, formerly the Lincolnshire Handicap, was run at Lincoln Racecourse, a.k.a. the Carholme, on the western edge of the city, until its closure in 1964. In its heyday, the race attracted huge ante-post interest. So, too, did the races that comprised the traditional ‘Autumn Double’, the Cesarewitch Handicap and the Cambridgeshire Handicap, which are still staged within the space of a fortnight at Newmarket each October, but in the reverse order from what was originally the case.
Of the five ‘Classic’ races run in Britain – namely, the 2,000 Guineas, 1,000 Guineas, Derby, Oaks and St. Leger – the 1,000 Guineas and the Oaks are restricted to three-year-old thoroughbred fillies, but the other three are open to three-year-old thoroughbred colts and fillies. Nowadays, the Derby is rarely contested by fillies; the last filly to run in the race was Cape Verdi, trained by Saeed bin Suroor, who started favourite after winning the 1,000 Guineas in 1998, but could finish only ninth of the 15 runners. Nevertheless, since the Derby was inaugurated in 1780, a total of six fillies have won; the most recent of them was Fifinella who, in 1916, won a ‘substitute’ Derby run at Newmarket and, just for good measure, won the so-called ‘New Oaks’, over the same course and distance, two days later.