In 1779, Edward Smith-Stanley, 12th Earl of Derby founded a sweepstakes race, for three-year-old thoroughbred fillies, to be run over a mile-and-a-half on Epsom Downs. He called it the Oaks Stakes, after his nearby residence, known as ‘The Oaks’ or, historically, as ‘Lambert’s Oaks’, in Carshalton. Derby won the inaugural running of the Oaks Stakes with his own horse, Bridget, and subsequently celebrated with friends, who included Sir Charles Bunbury, Chairman of the Jockey Club.
Together, the pair co-founded another sweepstakes race, for three-year-old colts and fillies. Legend has it that they tossed a coin to decide on the name of the race but, in any event, the inaugural ‘Derby Stakes’ was run, over a straight mile, on Epsom Downs on May 4, 1780. Bunbury had some consolation insofar as he won the race, with Diomed, and collected the princely sum of £1,065 15s. The Derby Stakes was run over a mile until 1784, when the distance was extended to a mile-and-a-half and the sweeping, downhill turn into Tattenham Corner was introduced.
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.
Not to be confused with its adjectival form, when used as a noun in horse racing circles, ‘Classic’ – often, but not always, capitalised – has a highly specific meaning. In Britain, the term refers to any of the five principal races for three-year-old horses, which are, in chronological order, the 2,000 Guineas, the 1,000 Guineas, the Oaks, the Derby and the St. Leger. The 2,000 Guineas, the Derby and the St. Leger are open to three-year-old thoroughbred colts and fillies, but the 1,000 Guineas and the Oaks are restricted to three-year-old thoroughbred fillies. Collectively, the former three races are sometimes referred to as the ‘Triple Crown’; the last horse to win all three was Nijinsky in 1970. The term ‘Classic’ can also be used to describe equivalent races in countries other than Britain, such as the Prix du Jockey Club, also known as the French Derby.