Ben Linfoot has been reading the history books and enjoying a plethora of old Epsom footage on YouTube as he compiles his top 40 renewals of the Derby.
Let’s get this project started with the first Derby winner of the 20th century, Diamond Jubilee. So named as he was foaled in 1897, the 60th year of Queen Victoria’s reign, Diamond Jubilee was owned by the Prince of Wales and he was H.R.H’s second Derby winner in five years as D.J followed in the hoofprints of his full brother, Persimmon. The 1896 Derby that Persimmon won was a thriller, as he just got there to beat St Frusquin by a neck amongst jubilant scenes on the Downs. A great sire, Persimmon was responsible for Sceptre, a fabulous filly that won every Classic in 1902 apart from the Derby. Both Persimmon and Diamond Jubilee were by St Simon, a brilliant horse that was unbeaten in his career - yet one that was denied his own shot at the Classics due to some red tape following the death of his owner. He became one of the most influential sires of all-time, Diamond Jubilee was one of his best colts and the only one of his sons to win the Triple Crown (he was the ninth horse to achieve the feat at the time). Feisty in nature, trainer Richard Marsh did a tremendous job in curbing his enthusiasm as did jockey Herbert Jones, who was in the saddle for all three of his Classic successes. Diamond Jubilee was shipped off to Argentina in 1906 where he became a success as a stallion, while the 1900 Derby was also the first time a starting gate was utilised – under starter’s orders, and we’re off!
The first photo-finish in the Derby’s history was called in 1949 as Nimbus, Amour Drake and Swallow Tail flashed past the post together following a frantic conclusion to the race. Nimbus and Swallow Tail had done battle for the last three furlongs and were tiring when they veered to the right late on, a situation which saw the French challenger, Amour Drake, switch inside towards the rail. It was a manoeuvre that probably cost France their third successive Derby win, as the photo revealed that Nimbus had held on by a head. It was a golden era for French racing as they had won the previous two renewals of the Derby with Pearl Diver and My Love, while four of the first six home in 1948 were French-bred. Amour Drake went on to win the following year’s Coronation Cup and at the same meeting France won the Derby again, this time with Galcador. As for Nimbus, he never raced again, but he went down in history as the first horse to win the Derby in a photo – and he had won the 2000 Guineas in exactly the same manner as well.
Vincent O’Brien trained six winners of the Derby and many belong in the upper echelons of this list. We’ll get to those. His final winner, though, Golden Fleece, is hard to rank as we just don’t know how good he could’ve been. His last race was the Derby, just the fourth outing and fourth victory of his career, and he was a good three-length winner (achieving the fastest winning time since 1936) under Pat Eddery, who maintained he was the best horse he ever sat on, even after Dancing Brave came along four years later. A product of the Nearco-Nearctic-Northern Dancer line, by Nijinsky, he was one of the mega purchases by Vernon’s Pools magnate Robert Sangster, who dominated the big money sales at Keeneland in the 1970s and 1980s under the watchful eye of O’Brien’s son-in-law, John Magnier. Sangster and Magnier targeted the best Northern Dancer stock money could buy and more of those are mentioned in this list, with Golden Fleece costing $775,000 as a yearling in 1980. When he won the race named after his sire, the Nijinsky Stakes, at Leopardstown in the spring of his three-year-old career, he easily beat Assert for the second time, a horse that subsequently won the Prix du Jockey Club, Irish Derby and Juddmonte International. Given his breeding (not only was he by Nijinsky but he was out of a mare by superb Arc winner Vaguely Noble), it was hoped he would go on to be influential at stud, but he died in 1984 after intestinal cancer surgery. He could’ve been so much higher in this list had the twists of fate not conspired against him.
While we’re on Sangster and Eddery and O’Brien let’s skip forward two years to 1984 and one of the most dramatic renewals of the Derby in its 240-year history. Here Sangster was expected to win his third Derby with El Gran Senor, an 8/11 chance who went into the race on the back of winning one of the greatest ever 2000 Guineas. At Newmarket he beat Chief Singer, subsequent winner of the July Cup and Sussex Stakes, Lear Fan, subsequent winner of the Prix Jacques le Marois, and Rainbow Quest, subsequent winner of the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe – and he beat them easily. All was going well for El Gran Senor at Epsom as he cruised into the race, Eddery looking around for dangers two furlongs from home. They seemed non-existent, but out of the pack came Secreto, trained by Vincent O’Brien’s son, David, a horse sired by Northern Dancer, like El Gran Senor, a horse bred at Windfields Farm in Maryland, like El Gran Senor. It still looked like El Gran Senor would get the job done late in proceedings, but under a fierce Christy Roche drive it was the 14/1 chance Secreto that got up by a short head to deny the favourite and stun the Epsom crowd. Neither Vincent O’Brien or Sangster won the Derby again, but Eddery managed one more victory aboard Quest For Fame, his third and final Derby win in 1990. While Derby defeat from the jaws of victory was a blow to O’Brien and Sangster in 1984, they did have another three-year-old son of Northern Dancer to call upon that season. He won the Irish 2000 Guineas, the Eclipse and the Irish Champion Stakes, a fine hat-trick of Group Ones by any horse’s standards. However, his race record was to pale into insignificance compared to his impact at stud, where he sired 73 individual top-level victors including 12 Classic winners, with Galileo and Montjeu among his number. He was, of course, Sadler’s Wells. And he beat Secreto in that Irish 2000 Guineas.
Eddery’s first Derby win was on Grundy in 1975, a horse more famous for his battle with Bustino in the same year’s King George at Ascot. Nevertheless, he was a great Derby winner, winning in front of a crowd of 750,000 at Epsom and doing so easily, by three lengths, on the back of another Classic victory in the Irish 2000 Guineas. By Great Nephew, like 1981 winner Shergar, Grundy went back to Ireland to record another easy win in the Irish Derby before his date with destiny at Ascot on July 26, 1975. Here he tussled with the previous year’s St Leger winner, Bustino, the pair sustaining a remarkable duel up the Ascot home straight, Grundy edging the contest by half-a-length in a then course-record time. It was dubbed the ‘Race of the Century’, but it took its toll on the duo as Bustino never raced again and Grundy only managed one more run, a defeat in the Juddmonte International at York. Grundy never sired a Derby winner, but he did produce Bireme who won the Oaks in 1980. As an aside, the runner-up in Grundy’s Derby was the filly Nobiliary. It’s unusual for a filly to run in the Derby these days, but six fillies have won the race in the past; Eleanor (1801), Blink Bonny (1857), Signorinetta (1908), Fifinella (1916), Shotover (1882) and Tagalie (1912). The first four named won the Oaks as well.
Fifinella, the last filly to win the Derby, did so on Newmarket’s July Course when Epsom was requisitioned by the military in World War I. From 1915-1918 the Derby was run at Newmarket and the best of the winners was arguably Gay Crusader who won the latest ever renewal of the race given it took place on July 31, 1917. A large part of the Flat season had been banned by the Government on account of the war, with racing only resuming in July, although the early weeks went ahead as Gay Crusader was second at the Craven Meeting before he won the 2000 Guineas. That ensured he went off the 7/4 favourite for what was called the ‘New Derby’ and he won very easily by four lengths in the hands of jockey Steve Donoghue, who was winning the second of his eventual six Derby victories at the time. Donoghue considered Gay Crusader the best horse he ever rode, and though not an official Triple Crown winner he did win the substitute race for the St Leger, as well, the September Stakes run over two and a half miles on the Rowley Mile course at Newmarket. He was trained by ‘The Wizard of Manton’ Alec Taylor, who also won the Derby with Lemberg (1910) and Gainsborough (1918), the latter being another non-official Triple Crown winner who won the same substitute races as Gay Crusader. Gainsborough was the first Derby winner owned by a woman, Lady Jane Douglas, and he became an influential sire, his son Hyperion winning the Derby in 1933. More on him later.
It’s incredible that the Derby has been run every single year since its inception in 1780, even during two world wars. It wasn’t run without controversy during the wars and the 1941 Derby, again at Newmarket, was a hot June day that attracted a large crowd and subsequently a great deal of criticism in both parliament and the papers. In Roger Mortimer’s The History of the Derby Stakes, a brilliant source that is essential reading for anything concerning the Derby pre-1970, he wrote: “Much of what was said or written was either wildly exaggerated or blatantly untrue, and it was conveniently overlooked that the gatherings of comparable dimensions habitually frequented greyhound tracks and football grounds. Racing, though, in the minds of the more spiteful critics, was the sport of the rich and therefore a suitable target.” It seems not a lot has changed in the last 80 years! The Second World War was over in Europe by the time the 1945 Derby came around but it was still run at Newmarket’s July Course and it remains the last renewal that wasn’t run at Epsom. Dante was a northern great, trained by Matthew Peacock at Middleham, and is of course now immortalised by the significant Derby trial that is named after him at York. He was beaten in the 2000 Guineas, some say because of the eye problem that eventually caused his blindness, but he stormed up the July Course to win the Derby by two lengths. A huge success at stud, the son of Nearco sired 256 winners and he can be found in the pedigrees of many top-class modern performers through his great-great grandson Top Ville, the damsire of horses like Montjeu, Yeats and Dar Re Mi.
Flying Fox, Diamond Jubilee, Blue Peter, Nashwan and Sea The Stars. A handful of top-class horses and the only ones in history to complete the 2000 Guineas, Derby and Eclipse treble. Blue Peter earned this particular badge of honour just before World War II broke out in 1939 and he’s famously the last horse to win the Blue Riband Trial at Epsom en route to Derby glory. It was run over a mile at the time and it served as the perfect prep for his tilt at the 2000 Guineas, which he won by half-a-length from his stablemate Admiral’s Walk. Trained in Newmarket by Jack Jarvis, Blue Peter was sent off as the 7/2 favourite at Epsom and he won in magnificent style by four lengths in the hands of ‘Eph’ Smith, who also rode him to Eclipse glory the following month. The plan had been the St Leger, and maybe a four-year-old campaign, but the outbreak of war accelerated his retirement and he went off to stud where he sired the 1944 Derby winner, Ocean Swell. A hugely popular winner, Blue Peter’s success was enjoyed by an audience at home, as it was the second year the BBC had broadcast the Derby on television, while the terrific footage below highlights how popular the race was in 1939 with an estimated one million spectators present on the Downs.
Fred Darling won the Derby seven times including on three occasions in the 1920s. His first winner was Captain Cuttle in 1922, a horse who won the first Derby that offered a five-figure prize to the winner. Captain Cuttle was by Hurry On who Darling described as the best horse he ever saw. Hurry On was a giant chestnut that was too backward to race at two and Darling didn’t even enter him in the Derby. He retired unbeaten in 1916, though, with six wins from six, including the St Leger, and he sired three Derby winners; Captain Cuttle, Call Boy and Coronach. Coronach was arguably the best Derby winner in the 1920s and a change of tactics saw him win easily at Epsom by five lengths. He was slowly away in the Guineas and was beaten by Colorado, but he made all in the Derby and that helped him reverse the form with Lord Derby’s colt emphatically. It was the only time from four meetings that Coronach beat Colorado, but he did prove himself a top-class horse as he won the St James’s Palace Stakes, Eclipse and St Leger later that season, while he landed the Coronation Cup and Hardwicke Stakes as a four-year-old. Not considered a success as a sire in England, he was better abroad and his daughter, Corrida, won back-to-back renewals of the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in 1936 and 1937.
From a sea of skulduggery in the 1830s and 1840s, the pinnacle of which we’ll get onto later, emerged one of the best horses of the era in Priam. Well bred, by the 1823 Derby winner Emilius out of Cressida, a full sister to Derby and Oaks winner, Eleanor, Priam was one of the few Derby winners in the 1830s that wasn’t accused of being a four-year-old. Despite 14 false starts at Epsom, a ridiculous situation but one typical of the time, Priam overcame the handicap of losing several lengths at the beginning of the Derby to beat Little Red Rover, a good horse in his own right, by a comfortable two lengths. His exploits on Derby day in isolation were good, but his career as a whole marks him out as one of the great Derby winners. He won 17 of his 19 races, including two Goodwood Cups, the second of which, in 1832, he beat that year’s Derby winner, St Giles, who was under suspicion as being a four-year-old. A successful sire in both Britain and America, the best of his progeny in the UK was Crucifix, who won the 1000 Guineas, 2000 Guineas and Oaks in 1840.
Aidan and Joseph O’Brien became the first father and son trainer-jockey combination to win the Derby when Camelot romped home on just his fourth start in 2012. He was also the fourth Derby winner in eight years for his sire Montjeu, the brilliant son of Sadler’s Wells who also sired the 2005 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe winner Hurricane Run, and became the first horse in 42 years to go for the Triple Crown. All the talk was whether he could follow in the hoofprints of his Ballydoyle forefather, Nijinsky, in the St Leger and having won the 2000 Guineas by a neck and the Derby by five lengths he was sent off the 2/5 favourite to prevail on Town Moor. The 32,000 crowd at Doncaster were silenced, though, as he could only finish a three-quarters-of-a-length second to Godolphin’s Encke, a 25/1 outsider. Eight months later Encke was one of 22 Mahmood Al-Zarooni horses to test positive for anabolic steroids, the trainer banished to obscurity in the aftermath, a sad end to the whole Triple Crown story and proof that villainy wasn’t restricted to a bygone era such as the 1830s. Camelot was also the fifth and latest horse to win what is now known as the Vertem Futurity Trophy before going onto Derby glory. The brainchild of Timeform founder Phil Bull, who was frustrated by the lack of opportunities for the less precocious juveniles, the Timeform Gold Cup was born in 1961 and was designed to appeal to future middle-distance type two-year-olds. It worked almost immediately with Noblesse winning the 1962 renewal before going on to Oaks glory the following year. Reference Point (Mill Reef), High Chaparral (Sadler’s Wells), Motivator (Montjeu) and Authorized (Montjeu) were the four colts pre-Camelot to do the Vertem Futurity-Derby double.
The first Derby was won by Diomed in 1780, over a mile. Owned by Sir Charles Bunbury, he was deemed no great success at stud and was exported to America at 20 years of age in 1797, where he founded a dynasty. The first Derby run over a mile and a half was won by Sergeant, a son of Eclipse, in 1784, and it was this year that the first signs were there of the race gaining a positive reputation, as the winner was required to carry 6lb extra in the Sion Sweepstakes at Newmarket in October. But if there’s one significant winner from those early years of the Derby, one horse who really helped establish the race, it was Sir Peter Teazle in 1787. The best son of star stallion Highflyer, Sir Peter Teazle was unraced before the Derby, something that wasn’t unusual when the race was in its infancy, but he’d clearly impressed at home as he was sent off second favourite. Unbeaten as a three-year-old, it is said he did well over the next few seasons as well, but it was when he went to stud that he really made his mark. He sired four St Leger winners, two Oaks winners and four winners of the Derby in Sir Harry, Archduke, Ditto and Paris. When Ditto won in 1803 Sir Peter Teazle sired the first three home. It’s not unreasonable to suggest Sir Peter Teazle was the first horse to begin the inculcation process of the Derby becoming the most important race for breeders, and the baton was passed to Waxy soon after that…
The first of Robert Robson’s seven Derby winners was Waxy in 1793. A son of Eclipse’s son, Pot-8-os, he was one of six representatives of his sire in the 1793 Derby but his most fierce rival was Gohanna, a son of Mercury - another horse by Eclipse. Waxy beat Gohanna by half a length at Epsom and the pair were to meet on numerous occasions after the Derby. Waxy invariably got the better of his old rival, the only time he lost was when giving Gohanna 3lb, but both were talented and both went on to make a mark at stud. Gohanna sired the 1807 Derby winner, Election, but Waxy was just the better horse on the track and he outdid his contemporary as a stallion, too. Six horses have sired four Derby winners; Sir Peter Teazle, Cyllene, Blandford, Montjeu and Galileo, and Waxy was responsible for a quartet of Epsom winners as well in Pope, Whalebone, Blucher and Whisker. Whisker won in 1815 when he got the better of the favourite Raphael, but some of the Epsom crowd didn’t take this well and dragged the runner-up’s jockey, Jackson, from his horse before mauling him with no serious injury caused! Whisker was famous for his mares at stud and he was the damsire of two Derby winners in Cotherstone and Mundig. It was Whisker’s full-brother, though, Whalebone, who was the best son of Waxy and he won the 1810 Derby easily after making all. His descendants, through his son Sir Hercules, include The Baron, Bend Or, Polymelus, Nearco, Northern Dancer, Sadler’s Wells and Galileo himself.
While we’re on influential sires in the history of the Derby another of the super sextet that has sired four winners is Cyllene. By Bona Vista, a son of Bend Or, Cyllene was also the sire of Polymelus, the great grandsire of Nearco. He didn’t run in the Classics, but won the Gold Cup and Cicero was the first of his four Derby winners, the others being Minoru, Lemberg and Tagalie. Cicero showed his talents early on and was unbeaten as a juvenile when he won five times, including the Woodcote, Coventry and July Stakes. Cicero didn’t run in the 2000 Guineas, but the horse that won it, Vedas, was behind him in the Coventry. That, along with Vedas’ absence and a comfortable win in the Newmarket Stakes, helps explain Cicero’s starting price of 4/11 for the Derby. It couldn’t be said the result was never in doubt, but he pulled out what was required at the business end to win by three parts of a length in a time of 2m39.4secs, which was a record in 1905.
The first official recorded time in the Derby was in 1846 when Pyrrhus The Second beat Sir Tatton Sykes in 2m55secs. Sir Tatton Sykes won the 2000 Guineas and the St Leger that season and would’ve, in all likelihood, have been the first horse to win the Triple Crown were it not for his jockey, Bill Scott, who was drunk in the saddle on Derby day. Ninety years later Mahmoud broke the track record in the Derby in a time of 2m33.8secs, almost 22 seconds quicker than Pyrrhus The Second had managed. A combination of a lightning quick pace set by Thankerton and ground described as ‘Firm’ contributed to this record, but, nonetheless, it was one that stood for 59 years until Lammtarra ran lower than 2mins33secs in 1995. Mahmoud was visually impressive, winning by three lengths, and the grey son of Blenheim (the Derby winner of 1930), was the third of five Derby winners for Aga Khan III, the grandfather of Aga Khan IV who has won the Derby five times himself including with Shergar (1981) and most recently Harzand (2016). Aga Khan III was winning the Derby for the second year running in 1936 as the previous year his Bahram, by Blandford – another sire of four Derby winners, won the Triple Crown, the last horse to do so (officially at least) before Nijinsky. The link between Mahmoud and Nijinsky is a blood one, as the 1936 Derby winner was the damsire of Natalma, the dam of Northern Dancer, sire of Nijinsky.
Talking of records that stood for over 50 years brings us onto Isinglass. The strapping son of Isonomy won 11 of his 12 races between 1892 and 1895, including the Triple Crown, and he amassed a career prizemoney total of £57,455, a record sum that was eventually surpassed 57 years after his retirement in 1952, by Tulyar, who won over £70,000 as a three-year-old thanks to wins in the Derby, King George, Eclipse and St Leger. Isinglass won the Derby by a length and a half from Ravensbury, with Raeburn third, the exact same straight-tricast that had landed in the 2000 Guineas. Remarkably, the Isinglass-Ravensbury straight-forecast came in in the St Leger as well and if you’re wondering where Raeburn was, fear not, as he popped up 10 days later to beat Isinglass by half a length in the Lancashire Plate over a mile, when in receipt of 10lb. It was the only defeat of Isinglass’ career. The following year Isinglass beat the 1894 Derby winner, Ladas, twice, in both the Princess of Wales’s Stakes at Newmarket and the Eclipse Stakes at Sandown, with his old pal Ravensbury behind him once again in the latter contest. And then as a five year old he won the Gold Cup at Ascot before retiring to stud, where he sired a couple of Classic winners in Cherry Lass and Glass Doll. It was an almost perfect racing career.
While we’re on near perfection what about Sinndar, another of the five winners for the Aga Khan IV? At the turn of the century this hard-as-nails son of Grand Lodge wore down Sakhee to win an excellent renewal of the Derby. Sakhee went on to win the Juddmonte International at York and the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp the following season, while Beat Hollow, who was five lengths further back in third at Epsom, won multiple top-level contests abroad before his second career as a successful National Hunt sire. Sinndar’s reserves of stamina were called upon to win the day at Epsom with the mile and a half trip, which he was racing over for the first time, bringing out the very best in him. An emphatic win in the Irish Derby at the Curragh followed and after his easy Prix Niel success he was sent off 6/4 second favourite for the Arc behind the odds-on Montjeu. John Oxx’s colt became the first horse, and currently only horse, to win the Derby, the Irish Derby and the Arc when he stayed on well to see off Egytpband, with Montjeu, the reigning champion, only fourth. The subsequent exploits of Sakhee mark Sinndar out as an exceptional Derby winner and he was a first for jockey Johnny Murtagh, who won the race twice more with High Chaparral and Motivator. Oxx campaigned him to near perfection, with Sinndar winning seven of his eight starts, an experience that no doubt helped him nine years later when he trained an even better colt to win the Derby.
It’s hard to think of many more impressive Derby winners than Generous, who romped home to win the 1991 renewal by five lengths, fully 12 lengths ahead of the third. Trained by Paul Cole at his Whatcombe Estate in Berkshire, near Wantage, those training facilities had been home to five Derby winners in the past thanks to Dick Dawson’s Fifinella (1916), Trigo (1929) and Blenheim (1930) and Arthur Budgett’s Blakeney (1969) and Morston (1973). Cole had been there just four years when Generous won the Derby and the horse went into the race a 9/1 chance having been fourth in the 2000 Guineas, while the highlight of his juvenile season was a surprise Dewhurst success at 50/1. Stepping up in trip to a mile and a half unlocked the superstar in him, though, and his Timeform rating of 135 has been surpassed by only two Derby winners in the last 50 years. He settled in a beautiful position just off the leaders under a young Alan Munro, in the saddle in place of the sacked Richard Quinn, and he travelled well, before storming clear in the straight. Five lengths stretched back to Marju at the line, a horse who franked the form a couple of weeks later when dropping back in trip to win the St James’s Palace Stakes. It wasn’t the only form boost, as the strength of that year’s Derby was further underlined later in the season when the fourth home, Hector Protector, won the Prix Jacques Le Marois and the ninth home, Toulon, won the St Leger. Environment Friend, 11th in the Derby, won the Eclipse, as well. As for Generous, he went and won the Irish Derby beating Suave Dancer by three lengths, before he won the King George by seven lengths from Sanglamore in sensational style, a winning distance that was a record until Harbinger’s 11-length demolition job in 2010. On his final start he pulled hard in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe and could only finish eighth, his old Irish Derby rival Suave Dancer gaining revenge on home turf. But, despite that final defeat, Generous rates as one of the very best to have danced around Epsom.
If you look at the bronze statue of Hyperion that stands in front of the Jockey Club headquarters on Newmarket’s High Street, you are looking at a tribute to a superb horse who achieved great things despite being diminutive. Standing at just 15.1 hands high, Hyperion was so small as a foal he was almost put down, but he soon proved himself on the racecourse as having the class of his sire, the 1918 Derby winner Gainsborough, and the guts and toughness of his dam, Selene, who won 15 races before breeding 10 winners. A winner of the Dewhurst at two, Hyperion was sent off favourite for the Derby having won the Chester Vase in fine style and he couldn’t have been any more impressive at Epsom, with eyewitnesses claiming the official winning margin of four lengths was on the conservative side (it does look more like six in the footage below). A winner of the Prince of Wales’s Stakes and the St Leger following the Derby, Hyperion met with two defeats as a four-year-old but went on to become a sensation as a stallion. Leading sire on six occasions, he sired the winners of 752 races including Classic winners Godiva, Sun Stream and the great Sun Chariot, while he was the damsire of Nearctic, Northern Dancer’s sire. Hyperion sired one Derby winner, Owen Tudor in 1938, and the 1953 runner-up, The Queen’s Aureole, who won the 1954 King George and became a great sire himself, his progeny including the 1960 Derby winner St Paddy, the 1959 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe winner Saint Crespin and also Vienna, sire of the 1968 Arc winner, Vaguely Noble, who in turn was the sire of the 1976 Derby winner, Empery. Trained by George Lambton, the winner of 13 Classics, Hyperion was the second and final Derby winner for his handler, who had won the race for the first time in 1924 with Sansovino, having been second in 1923 with Pharos, sire of Nearco.
An unbeaten Derby winner impeccably bred for the job that won at Epsom in record time would be enough to take high rank in any list like this one. However the story of Lammtarra is so much more than the bare racing facts, as his young trainer, 34-year-old Alex Scott, was shot dead by a disgruntled employee in the September of Lammtarra’s two-year-old campaign, only weeks after the colt had made a winning debut in the Washington Singer Stakes at Newbury. The tragedy sparked emotional scenes in the aftermath of Lammtarra’s Derby win at Epsom, with jockey Walter Swinburn paying tribute to Scott, while the Alex Scott Maiden Stakes, run at Newmarket’s Craven Meeting every year, commemorates the life of a trainer whose career highlight was winning the Breeders’ Cup Sprint with Sheikh Albadou in 1991. As for Lammtarra, he was transferred into the care of a fledgling trainer, Saeed bin Suroor, who was 27 at the time. Lammtarra was sick in the spring, though, and Bin Suroor couldn’t get a prep run into him, so he lined up on Derby day for just his second career start, 302 days after his first. By the Derby winner Nijinksy, out of the Oaks winner, Snow Bride, he was certainly bred to handle at Epsom and he did so with aplomb. With two furlongs to go Lammtarra had a lot to do, but he flew home under Swinburn in a time 1.53 seconds faster than Mahmoud’s 1936 race record that had stood for 59 years. A winner of the King George and Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe under Frankie Dettori subsequently, Lammtarra retired a perfect four from four, his one-race Derby prep more akin to something from the 1790s than the 1990s. He was a special horse.
If you ordered all of the Derby winners by ability Aboyeur would probably be somewhere in the high 230s, so I couldn’t put him in this list, but in terms of social history the 1913 Derby would be number one. This was the year that suffragette Emily Davison was killed in the race after being trampled on by the King’s horse, Anmer, around Tattenham Corner. It’s possible she was trying to pin a ‘Votes For Women’ scarf to Anmer after ducking under the rails and walking onto the track, a return train ticket upon her possession making it difficult to subscribe to the suicide theory. Whatever her intentions, she ultimately suffered a fractured skull and died in hospital four days after the Derby. It was five years later when approximately two thirds of women in the UK got the right to vote, while it wasn’t until 1928 when women finally achieved the same voting rights as men. Davison’s death was tragic and it’s rightly the only reason the 1913 Derby is remembered. It was said to be a rough race and the 6/4 favourite Craganour passed the post in front by a head, but was subsequently disqualified for not keeping a straight course and interfering with several rivals, including the runner-up, Aboyeur. The 100/1 chance was awarded the race in the stewards’ room, never won again after defeats at Liverpool and Goodwood, and was exported to Russia as a stallion.
Slip Anchor was the first of four Derby winners for Sir Henry Cecil and he was the best of the quartet. By the 1978 Derby winner Shirley Heights, who was himself by the 1971 Derby winner Mill Reef, Slip Anchor really came to prominence when he won the Lingfield Derby Trial by 10 lengths with an all-the-way success. Before that, though, he won the Heathorn Stakes, now the Newmarket Stakes, a race his sire was the inaugural winner of. With those two victories under his belt he was sent off the 9/4 favourite at Epsom under crack American jockey Steve Cauthen and the result was never in doubt from a long way out as the pair motored around the Derby course for an emphatic front-running victory. It was the first time a horse had made all in the Derby since the aforementioned Coronach in 1926 and such was his dominance he could’ve been called the winner a long way before the top of the home straight, where he turned in 10 lengths clear. Cauthen had a few looks over his shoulder to make sure the chasing pack weren’t getting any closer and they weren’t, with Slip Anchor coasting over the line for a seven-length win. The jockey was effusive in his praise for the horse afterwards, saying he was the best horse he’d ever ridden, and that included American Triple Crown hero Affirmed, so it was a great shame injury contributed to him never winning another race, although he did finish second to Pebbles in a vintage edition of that year’s Champion Stakes. Retired to stud after only one run at four, the best of his progeny was User Friendly, trained by Pebbles’ handler Clive Brittain, who won the Oaks and the St Leger in 1992. Cecil and Cauthen teamed up again in the Derby two years later with Reference Point, while Cecil also triumphed with Commander In Chief in 1993 and Oath in 1999.
While Oath was Cecil’s final Derby winner he was Kieren Fallon’s first and there has been no finer modern-day jockey to ride Epsom. When Fallon’s talent burned brilliant he was unstoppable and between 1997 and 2006, a period in which he was Champion Jockey six times, he won seven of the 20 Classics run at Epsom in that timeframe, with four Oaks complementing his three Derby victories. Fallon’s ride on Oath in 1999 was excellent and he’s still the last horse to win the Derby from stall one, while his final Derby victory on North Light in 2004 was altogether more straightforward; it was a case of best horse wins race. However, you could not be certain you could say the same in 2003 when Fallon partnered Kris Kin to Derby victory for Sir Michael Stoute. Here was a horse who his trainer described as ‘one of the laziest horses at home I’ve ever trained’ and Fallon squeezed every drop of ability out of him on June 7, 2003. From the moment Kris Kin broke from his inside berth in stall four, Fallon pushed and cajoled his mount along to keep him in contention. Travel well he did not, but the constant urgings from the man on top helped him stay within touching distance of the leaders and he enjoyed a dream trip through on the inside. After charging around Tattenham Corner Fallon darted past Brian Boru to the inside rail, before peeling off in one smooth movement to take the gap between Balestrini and Alamshar. His equine partner was in a willing mood now and he responded to Fallon’s strong assistance to win by a length, with Stoute saying afterwards that it was one of the very best Derby rides. And while Kris Kin won’t go down in history as one of the Derby greats, his jockey surely will.
Bill Scott, the inebriated jockey who in all likelihood denied Sir Tatton Sykes the chance to become the first horse to win the Triple Crown in 1846, had a brother called John. Despite that reverse on Sir Tatton Sykes, Bill Scott won the Derby four times as a jockey and three of his winning horses were prepared by his brother, who trained five Derby winners in total. The last of John Scott’s Derby winners was West Australian, who, in 1853, became the first horse to win the Triple Crown. Perhaps winning the first Triple Crown was meant to be for the Scott family! West Australian’s owner was John Bowes, who won the Derby on four occasions, with each of them trained by Scott, but his 1853 winner was the best. Bowes was an art collector in the north east and he founded the Bowes Museum, which has a nationally renowned art collection, and it was the thing that Barnard Castle was most famous for, for many years, until very recently! West Australian, on the back of his 2000 Guineas victory, was the 6/4 favourite in a field of 28 for the 1853 Derby but he only just managed to win by a neck under Frank Butler. He got even better as he went up in trip, though, winning the St Leger in a canter before landing the following year’s Gold Cup at Ascot. West Australian wasn’t considered a success at stud, but he was the great-great-great grandsire of Hurry On, mentioned in the Coronach excerpt above in reference to Fred Darling’s best horse. It was to be 12 years before the Triple Crown was won again, by the French great Gladiateur, and that success opened the floodgates; there were to be nine winners of the Triple Crown from 1865 to 1903.
One of those, in 1886, was Ormonde, who became the fourth winner of the Triple Crown. A brilliant racehorse, described at the time as the ‘horse of the century’, he retired unbeaten, a perfect 16 from 16. He was trained by John Porter, a man who is still the joint-leading trainer in the race with seven wins, and ridden by Fred Archer, the pre-eminent sportsman of the Victorian era, who won five Derbys and was Champion Jockey for 13 consecutive years. Archer rode Ormonde in 11 of his first 13 career runs, including in the Derby, but he shot himself while in a state of temporary insanity just 10 days after he last rode the horse to victory, sending masses of English sports fans into mourning. Ormonde was obviously Archer’s fifth and final Derby winner, but he was by far his easiest. He beat The Bard by a length and a half, with the judge saying he had never seen an easier winner, and Archer’s previous four Derby victory margins had added up to less than a length. The Bard was said good enough to win nine out of 10 Derbys and he did indeed win 23 of his 25 career starts, his only other defeat coming in the Manchester Cup when he failed to give Riversdale 31lb. Ormonde proved himself again at four, beating that year’s St Leger winner, Kilwarin, by six lengths in the Rous Stakes having conceded him 25lb. When he won the Hardwicke Stakes the following day, he was given a tremendous reception by the Ascot crowd but it wasn’t to be his swansong as that came a month later in the Imperial Gold Cup, over six furlongs, at Newmarket. Fertility problems beset his career at stud, but he did sire Orme, the dual-Eclipse winner, who subsequently sired two Derby winners in Flying Fox and Orby.
The 1957 Derby turned out to be a vintage one. Crepello was the winner and he was eased down by Lester Piggott, winning his second Derby, in the closing stages to win by a length and a half. It was to be the final race of his career due to injury, although he was ruled out of a crack at the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot in July just an hour before the race on account of the ground. Crepello raced just five times in his career and he finished second on his debut in the Windsor Castle before he was fourth in the Middle Park. He won his last three races; the Dewhurst, the 2000 Guineas and the Derby, and he was the first of three Derby successes for trainer Noel Murless, the others being St. Paddy in 1960 and Royal Palace in 1967. Just how good he was or could have been is pure conjecture, but we’ve got a good idea as to the merits of his Derby success judging by the subsequent exploits of the runner-up, Ballymoss. Trained by Vincent O’Brien, who was still more famous for his Cheltenham Festival wins at the time, Ballymoss went on to win the Irish Derby and St Leger as a three-year-old, before his tremendous four-year-old campaign that yielded success in the Coronation Cup, Eclipse, King George and Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. That Crepello readily brushed him aside at Epsom marks him out as an outstanding Derby winner, albeit a fragile one.
When Nijinsky won the 2000 Guineas and the Derby in 1970 he became the 34th horse to achieve the first-two-Classics-of-the-season double. It was a feat that wasn’t matched for another 19 years but it was worth the wait, for in 1989 along came the brilliant Nashwan. Despite having trained racing luminaries such as Brigadier Gerard, Bustino, Troy, Henbit and Dayjur, Dick Hern described Nashwan as the best horse he ever trained following a faultless three-year-old campaign in Britain that saw him win the 2000 Guineas, Derby, Eclipse and King George, the only horse in history to complete that particular four-timer. As I revisit the YouTube footage of the 1989 Derby the sporadic appearance of umbrellas in the crowd indicates it wasn’t the nicest day weather-wise, but Nashwan shone alright under Willie Carson, sprinting clear in the closing stages for an emphatic five-length win. American-bred, by Blushing Groom, Nashwan was a descendent of Nearco, like so many horses in this list, and was out of the great broodmare Height Of Fashion. An important stallion for Shadwell, he sired dual King George winner Swain, Juddmonte International winner One So Wonderful and Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe winner Bago. That race was meant to be Nashwan’s swansong, but defeat in the Prix Niel at 1/5, partly because of the soft ground, saw connections draw stumps on his career. It was the only blot on his copybook.
And so to Frankie Dettori. We had to get there eventually. The most recognisable face in British racing in the nineties, the noughties and now, at one point it looked as if this phenomenal jockey might not win the Derby as his first 14 attempts ended in defeat. Authorized, in 2007, ended his jinx and he was a supreme winner, who almost made this list. Perhaps, he should’ve done. But Dettori has since ridden an even better Derby hero. First he had to endure the wilderness years, the falling out with Sheikh Mohammed, the positive test for cocaine in France. In 2012, 2013 and 2014 there was no ride in the Derby for Dettori. But then along came his renaissance, his second partnership with John Gosden and, in 2015, his second Derby victory, aboard Golden Horn, a fabulous colt owned and bred by Anthony Oppenheimer. He might’ve been a bit of a slow burner, given he only made one start at two and had to be supplemented for Epsom, but once he caught fire he was unstoppable and he stormed to Feilden Stakes, Dante Stakes, Derby and Eclipse success in the first four months of his three-year-old career. In the Derby Dettori rode him like he was in the best car in a Grand Prix. It was three furlongs out that he decided to go for the full throttle and Golden Horn responded like a Ferrari, sinking stablemate Jack Hobbs, who went on to win the Irish Derby, by three and a half lengths. There was even better to come for Golden Horn and Dettori; a fabulous Eclipse, a hard-fought Irish Champion Stakes and a majestic Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe thanks, in part, to an exceptional ride. Golden Horn was Gosden’s second of two Derby winners, so far, following on from Benny The Dip in 1997. His father, Towser Gosden, never won the Derby, but he did train 1966 winner Charlottown as a juvenile before retiring for health reasons, with Gordon Smyth taking over training duties in his three-year-old season.
If it took Dettori a long time to win the Derby, what about Sir Gordon Richards? He was Champion Jockey on 26 occasions, rode a British record 4870 winners and was knighted in 1953, in his last year as a jockey, but he still hadn’t won the Derby at the start of that season. He’d won four of the five Classics in 1942, but the Derby had eluded him on 27 occasions and he must’ve been facing up to the stark reality that he would become the greatest ever jockey not to win the Epsom Classic. But, in true fairytale fashion, he was to break his Derby duck on his final ride in the race on a horse bred by his long-time associate, Fred Darling, who died three days after Pinza’s Classic success. The crowd was enormous on Derby day in 1953, swelled by the presence of the Queen, who was crowned earlier that very week in Westminster Abbey. She had a runner in the race, too, in Aureole, who proved no match for Pinza, going down by four lengths in second, but he proved himself a fine racehorse in time. As a four-year-old he won the Coronation Cup and the King George, among other races, while he was a huge success as a stallion, as mentioned in the section on his sire, Hyperion. As for Pinza, he stormed to Derby success and he beat Aureole again in the King George thanks to an impressive turn of pace. Among the vanquished at Ascot was the 1952 Arc winner, Nuccio, and that helped cement Pinza’s legacy as a great Derby winner. He didn’t race again after Ascot and he didn’t make a great impact at stud, either, but he did have a locomotive named after him and, given he was Sir Gordon Richards’ crowning victory, he deserves a lofty perch in this list.
Sir Michael Stoute’s Workforce put in the quickest shift in Derby history to land the 2010 renewal in a race record 2m31.33secs. He won by seven lengths, the largest victory margin since Slip Anchor’s identical winning distance 25 years earlier, and as you would expect he did so in great style. Sporting the Juddmonte green cap, Workforce quickened impressively under Ryan Moore to get to Coolmore pacemaker At First Sight, and he quickened again to put seven lengths between himself and the field. The third, Rewilding, went on to win a couple of Group Ones, including a great Prince of Wales’s against 10-time top-level winner So You Think, so this was clearly a quality Derby which made the winner’s lacklustre performance in the King George all the more baffling. However, here was a horse that had bounced back from defeat before, as he became the first horse in history to win the Derby on the back of getting beaten in the Dante at York, and he would recover from his Ascot drubbing to win the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp. It was somewhat surprising that he stayed in training at four, in which he won only once from four appearances, but Stoute brought him to a perfect peak twice as a three-year-old, including for his fifth Derby success.
Workforce was fabulous on his day, but he was inconsistent. Sea The Stars’ three-year-old career, on the other hand, was sheer perfection. He did a Nashwan by completing the 2000 Guineas-Derby-Eclipse hat-trick, a feat triggered by fate after he was ruled out of the Irish Derby, on account of the ground, the week before Sandown. But while so many other high-class colts have gone off the boil in the autumn of their three-year-old careers, Sea The Stars thrived. On the back of Juddmonte International success at York he put in what was arguably the greatest performance of his career in the Irish Champion at Leopardstown, although his crowning glory in Paris and his sumptuous Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe victory could lay claim to that title, too. He’d proven his stamina by then, but at Epsom he hadn’t, and he had the battalions of Ballydoyle to deal with as Aidan O’Brien ran six against him. But his dam Urban Sea had won the Arc and she had already produced a Derby winner in Galileo, so the stars had aligned for John Oxx’s colt and he sauntered to a one and three quarter length victory with little fuss. Ridden confidently by the wily veteran Mick Kinane in the twilight of his career, Sea The Stars had proven his stamina, his class, his pace, his temperament, his constitution. A true champion and a credit to Oxx, he has to go down as one of the greatest Derby winners.
There have been several books written about the 1844 Derby including Gentlemen And Blackguards by Nicholas Foulkes, a publication with the tagline ‘Gambling Mania & The Plot To Steal The Derby of 1844’, which is a pretty tame teaser for an incredible tale. Probably the most notorious scandal in the history of racing, the winner of the 1844 Derby, a race for three-year-olds right from its initial inception in 1780, was four-years-old. And, not only that, he wasn’t the only horse of that vintage in the race as Leander, who died after breaking his leg in the contest, was found to be four upon examination of his teeth. And, not only that, but another fancied horse, Ratan, was drugged, too, while his jockey, Sam Rogers, also pulled him to make sure of defeat. And, not only that, but the favourite for the race, Ugly Buck, was also said to have been ridden to lose. The orchestrator of this dastardly coup was Abraham Levi Goodman, an unscrupulous gambler who ran the four-year-old ‘Maccabeus’ as the three-year-old ‘Running Rein’. Given his maturity and the fact most of the other fancied horses were got at, it was no surprise to Goodman that ‘Running Rein’ had won, but the Jockey Club and Lord George Bentinck were onto him and he fled the country without his £50,000 in winnings. The case was settled in a court of law and the runner-up on the day, Orlando, was awarded the race. It wasn’t the first time that four-year-old fraud was suspected in the Derby, as the 1832 winner, St Giles, the 1833 winner, Dangerous, and the 1839 winner, Bloomsbury, were all thought to have a year in hand, as well. The 1844 debacle, though, seemed to put an end to the chicanery.
We’re getting to some true Derby greats now and Sir Ivor certainly deserves that moniker after his electrifying turn of foot sealed the 1968 renewal. The American-bred was the second of six winners in the race for Ballydoyle trainer Vincent O’Brien and the fourth of nine Derby winners for Lester Piggott, who told Lee Mottershead in a recent Racing Post interview that ‘Sir Ivor was the most brilliant horse I ever rode.’ That brilliance was in evidence when he won the 2000 Guineas by a length and a half from Petingo, a performance that meant he was sent off the 4/5 favourite at Epsom. Like all Guineas winners, he had his stamina to prove, and when Connaught went clear in the final quarter mile of the Derby it looked as though Sir Ivor had it all to do. Indeed, with a furlong to go Sir Ivor had five lengths to make up on the leader, but he devoured the gap in a flash and won by a cosy length and a half in the end after a devastating burst of speed. Even at the time Piggott declared him the best Derby winner he had ridden, while O’Brien rated him above even Ballymoss. It must’ve been a great frustration, then, that he lost his next four races in the Irish Derby, the Eclipse, the Prix Henri Delamarre and the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, where he was runner-up to Vaguely Noble. He got back on track, though, finishing his career with victories in the Champion Stakes and the Washington International, before retiring to stud in America where he sired 94 stakes winners.
In at number eight we have the 1986 Derby and probably the most obvious case in the list of best-horse-finishes-second. I wrote a similar to piece to this one on the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe last year and the love for Dancing Brave shone through, with many (all?) of you not shy in letting me know that you thought his Paris procession should’ve been higher than number five. Well you’re not having a Derby runner-up higher than eighth, comrades, although there are no qualms about his top 10 status. It’s still a thrill to revisit the footage now, watching Dancing Brave eat up the deficit as he came from the rear under Greville Starkey, only to run out of track by half a length as Shahrastani held on under Walter Swinburn. Without Dancing Brave I doubt Shahrastani would be this high in the list, but he did go onto win the Irish Derby by eight lengths and he was clearly a very good horse in his own right. He just wasn’t as good as Dancing Brave, who proved as much when he reversed the form in the King George, while that incredible Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, in against such a strong field, marked him out as one of the very best. The best horse that ever ran in the Derby that didn’t win it? Probably.
Like Shahrastani, Shergar raced in the famous green and red silks of the Aga Khan IV. Unlike Shahrastani, Shergar put 10 lengths between himself and the field in the most one-sided Derby destruction ever seen. Sent off 10/11 on the back of easy wins in the Sandown Classic Trial and Chester Vase, it was no surprise to many that Shergar won the Derby, including The Observer’s racing correspondent, Richard Baerlain, who famously began one of his pieces with the immortal line ‘Now is the time to bet like men.’ Having backed him at 33/1 down to evens he won enough money to buy a house in Sussex, which he named after the 1981 Derby winner. What a feeling it must’ve been to have seen 19-year-old Walter Swinburn sitting motionless on him as they glided around Tattenham Corner. The white-faced Shergar bounded clear in a procession in the straight, with Swinburn looking around for non-existent dangers in the final furlong, where he patted him down the neck and eased him down such was his dominance. Shergar continued to light up that summer of sport with wins in the Irish Derby and the King George, but he’s as famous for his sad demise as he was his bloodless victories on the track, his kidnapping from the Ballymany Stud at the hands of the IRA ensuring his legend will live on through books and film. Indeed, he’s probably still the most recognisable Derby winner for the man on the street and in 2011, 30 years after his Epsom romp, he scored 64 in a round on the BBC quiz show Pointless, with Authorized, Dettori’s 2007 winner, scoring only two.
1971 was a vintage year for the Classic generation with Brigadier Gerard and Mill Reef both dominating their divisions in some style. The only time they met, in the 2000 Guineas, Brigadier Gerard defeated Mill Reef by three lengths over his optimum trip, but Ian Balding’s horse swept all before him when stepping up to a mile and a half. American bred by US sire Never Bend, there was a question mark over whether Mill Reef would stay the Derby distance, but he answered that particular poser emphatically under Geoff Lewis, who asked his mount to go and win his race two out after travelling ominously well. A tremendous two-length winner over Linden Tree, Mill Reef just got better after Epsom during a sensational summer in which he won the Eclipse and King George in the style of a true champion. His crowning glory came in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, though, where he beat the French filly Pistol Packer by three lengths in race-record time. Kept in training at four, he won the Prix Ganay and Coronation Cup before a training injury accelerated his retirement to stud, where he was a success, siring Derby heroes Shirley Heights and Reference Point among many other top-level winners. A winner of 12 of his 14 races, Mill Reef’s only two defeats came at the hands of top-class horses My Swallow and Brigadier Gerard, and he goes down in racing history as a legend of the turf.
The 1880 Derby, won by Bend Or, was one of the most incredible victories of Fred Archer’s career. The second of his five Derby wins, Archer described Bend Or as probably the greatest horse he ever rode, but it was his daring ride and the circumstances that surrounded the partnership on May 26, 1880, that mark Bend Or out as such a special Derby winner. An exceptional two-year-old who won five from five, Bend Or’s first assignment at three was the Derby, but he developed sore shins in the days leading up to Epsom and had to be treated every night by his trainer, Robert Peck, in the week before the race. If Bend Or was sore in the days before the Derby, Archer must’ve been in excruciating pain after being savaged by the ill-tempered Muley Edris on Newmarket Heath on May 1, the horse pinning him down and biting into his arm. While under treatment for his wounds, Archer’s weight ballooned to 9st10lb, which meant he had to lose a stone in four days on Derby week. Despite the pain in his arm and the wasting, Archer rode Bend Or to the narrowest of Derby victories, thanks in part to his manoeuvre at Tattenham Corner where he drove his mount through the tightest of gaps on the rail to get into a challenging position. Still, he had a couple of lengths to find on Robert The Devil, but under an immensely strong drive from the one-armed Archer, Bend Or got up on the line to win by a head. Bend Or’s career as a whole was exceptional and he won 10 of his 14 starts, while Robert The Devil’s own successes, which included the St Leger and Gold Cup at Ascot, prove the worth of the 1880 Derby. A huge success at stud, the 1886 Triple Crown winner Ormonde was among Bend Or’s first crop, while he’s bang in the middle of the tail male sire line between Eclipse and Frankel, thanks to another of his son’s, Bona Vista.
A decade before Nashwan arrived on the scene, Dick Hern had been trying in vain to win the Derby for 20 years and then he found two Epsom heroes in quick succession, with Troy’s storming finishing effort in 1979 preceding Henbit’s 1980 success with Willie Carson riding them both. It’s doubtful that Hern was too confident of breaking his duck when Carson was towards the rear aboard Troy rounding Tattenham Corner, but he ground his way into contention from the top of the straight and by two furlongs out was a huge threat to all. From here on in it was a one-horse race, with Troy galloping strongly all the way to the line to win by seven lengths, at the time the biggest victory margin in the Derby for 54 years. Troy went on to win the Irish Derby, the King George and the Juddmonte International and the form of the 1979 Derby turned out to be particularly strong. The second, Dickens Hill, won the Eclipse later that summer, the third, Northern Baby, won the Champion Stakes, the fourth, Ela-Mana-Mou, won the Eclipse and the King George the following year, the ninth, Nininski, won the Irish Leger, and the 15th, Son Of Love, won the St Leger at Doncaster. Having beaten such a strong field in such a resounding manner, Troy must go down as one of the very best Derby winners. He had a brief career as a stallion having died when he was just seven, but he was the damsire of the 1999 Derby winner, Oath.
Right at the start of the 21st century Aidan O’Brien, who hadn’t won the Derby at the time, was preparing a colt destined for greatness for his racecourse debut. By Sadler’s Wells, out of the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe winner, Urban Sea, the strapping Galileo was sent off the Evens favourite for a 16-runner Leopardstown maiden on October 28, 2000. In grand introduction style, he won by 14 lengths. Two Derby trials later and this unbeaten colt, owned by Sue Magnier and Michael Tabor, headed to Epsom as the 11/4 joint-favourite along with the 2000 Guineas winner, Golan. But Galileo laughed at them in the Derby, Golan included, under a steely Mick Kinane who rode him like a sure thing, just behind the pacesetters, on the outside, before pouncing for the lead two furlongs from home. He extended himself like a machine, imperiously defeating his rivals as if he was from a different species. The king had arrived. The winning distance was three and a half lengths, but it could have been more. The first of a joint-record seven Derby winners for O’Brien (so far), Galileo was the catalyst for a period of dominance of the like we haven’t seen before, for both the Ballydoyle trainer and his Coolmore owners. While he added the Irish Derby and King George to his CV before a couple of defeats, it’s his impact at stud that has been even more sensational than anything he ever did on the track. This year he became the most successful sire of Group One winners in history, with 85 of his individual progeny having won a top-level race, and his notable offspring include the greatest horse of all time, Frankel. Of O’Brien’s six subsequent Derby winners, half of them have been by Galileo, while he sired a fourth Epsom hero in New Approach, making him the equal leading sire of winners in the race. His achievements as a stallion are unprecedented and more records are sure to come his way in the next few years, including, you would think, sole ownership of that leading sire of Derby winners’ record. His impact at stud has been simply remarkable.
When you don’t come off the bit in winning the Derby you’re going to go down as one of the best winners in the history of the race. You simply don’t win the Derby in that manner. Yet, in 1965, Sea Bird gave Australian jockey Pat Glennon the ride of his life around Epsom, with the man from Melbourne not having to so much as tickle the handbrake as his mount sauntered to a two-lengths-could-have-been-10-lengths Derby victory. It wasn’t as if he was running against an average field, with the runner-up, Meadow Court, going on to win the Irish Derby and King George later that summer. Sea Bird wasn’t a one-hit wonder, either, as he eased to another victory in the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud, before he demolished a high-class field in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, his swansong. His performances in 1965 earned him a rating of 145 from Timeform and he was the highest-rated horse in their history until Frankel’s ridiculous 147 performance in the 2012 Queen Anne. He is arguably the greatest ever Derby winner, but, while he sired some highly-talented racehorses, including the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe winner, Allez France, and the brilliant dual-purpose horse, Sea Pigeon, he didn’t have the impact at stud that our number one did.
The same old names have cropped up several times in this list of Derby greats. Vincent O’Brien, Lester Piggott and Northern Dancer would be three of the most popular in a document search. In 1970 they combined to win the Derby with Nijinsky, a fabulous winner, who achieved exceptional feats on the racecourse both before and after Epsom. He won the 2000 Guineas by two and a half lengths in majestic fashion. He won the Irish Derby, the King George and the St Leger following on from his Derby success. Heartbreakingly, he lost the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe by a head. But in August he had suffered from a severe attack of ringworm, making his Triple Crown-sealing Leger victory all the more commendable. Indeed, he was unlucky with his afflictions and suffered from a bout of colic two days before the Derby at Epsom. You wouldn’t know watching the video of his Derby win, with Piggott sitting motionless until he asked the son of Northern Dancer to go and win his race in the final quarter mile. Nijinsky soon got to Gyr, a son of Sea Bird, and showed supreme acceleration to win by two and a half lengths in 2m34.88secs, the fastest winning time in the race in 34 years on ground that wouldn’t have been as quick as it was for Mahmoud’s Derby. O’Brien called him the most brilliant horse he ever trained. As a stallion he was supreme, siring 155 stakes/Group winners including three Derby heroes in Golden Fleece, Lammtarra and Shahrastani, who all made this top 40. In 1986, when Shahrastani won at Epsom, he also sired the Kentucky Derby winner, Ferdinand, the same-season double a unique achievement. His part in influencing John Magnier to target the Northern Dancer sire line cannot be underestimated. And, fifty years on from his Triple Crown-winning season, the last horse to achieve the feat, the combination of his careers both on and off the track marks him out as the greatest ever Derby winner.
Disagree with Ben's list? Are there any shocking omissions?
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Tim Williams: I cannot have Troy at number four. In 1979 Troy was the best British horse in a year of very mediocre 3 & older horses. He was shown in true light at the Arc when he finished behind Three Troikas and Le Marmot. I was there that day and have mentioned before how Willie Carson looked so smug leaving the paddock but came back with his tail between his legs. Troy should not be in the top fifty.
Morston is an interesting contender. Impossible to rate. Beat nothing. But to win the Derby on only his second race in public. Probably not remembered because of his unfashionable trainer and jockey (Budgett & Hide), and due to his injury and early retirement, his complete lack of form to provide any clues as to his real talent.
Dave Parker: Fantastic to read and watch all those Derbys , could not agree more with the comments about Dancing Brave probably the greatest horse never to win the Derby.
After watching all the videos and reading script that accompanies them I had to watch the interview with the head lad for Vincent O,Brien who states that Lester Piggot over lunch stated that Sir Ivor was the best horse he ever rode, who am I to argue with the greatest Derby jockey of all time.
When we think back to Nijinsky and it being 50 years since he achieved the triple crown it makes me wonder how good was Sir Ivor who was a big disappointment after winning the Derby.
Shergar was probably the easiest winner of all time but sadly he disappeared into history for other reasons .
Reading all the scripts it is interesting how many Derby winners went onto stud and were failures for different reasons , obviously Galileo and Sea the Stars are the exceptions.
To see Bullet Train running in a Derby and then being a pace maker for Frankel is quite amazing as he must have been a very talented horse.
My fondest memory is Nijinsky great horse great trainer and a great jockey and it would be so good to see the Triple Crown done again (hopefully).
Paul Winkless: Great feature. All about opinions, my fave was seeing Lester and the courage of a lion that was the Minstrel edging past Hot Grove on the line in 77. A lengthy riding ban would of been administered in these times for Piggott. The flashy white socked son of Northern Dancer also won the Irish Derby and King George. Syndicated for serious money at stud by R Sangster he sired no less than hall of famer Cigar and top Aussie horse Naturalism plus a line of top class winners internationally. Even now watching it back it was in my view one of Lester's greatest ever rides.
Steve Handley: A very interesting and thought provoking piece by Ben, I suspect it was a labour of love. What makes going back and looking at the horses that won the races over the ages interesting is the different views that everyone holds. I’ve only been to the race once in 1982 when Golden Fleece won and the speed he showed as he went past me at about the furlong pole makes me think he was worthy of being in the top 40. However it was nearly as memorable for avoiding the numerous drunks so have never gone back but hopefully it is better now (not totally convinced though) With the list, not quite sure whether these are the best Derby winners or most memorable occasions. There is no way anybody is going to completely agree with the 40 whatever the criteria used but my observations would be:
Is Nijinsky the best Derby winner? I would say definitely not. He was a lovely horse and a rattling good one but would he have beaten Sea Bird or Mill Reef for example, in my opinion he wouldn't and arguably Mill Reef was in the same ball park as a sire.
It is difficult to fit in the 19th century winners but from what I read Priam and Ormonde caught my imagination as the two horses to take from then although there were plenty of others that could be described as great. For me Priam is too low as is Bend Or too high as Robert the Devil should have beaten him and lost because Archer was inspired and his jockey panicked, according to the accounts I’ve read anyway.
There are many other discussions (arguments) that could be gone into as it is a fascinating topic for racing fans. Since I’ve been watching since about 1960 I would go for Sea Bird, Nijinsky, Sea the Stars, Golden Horn and Mill Reef as my top five for ability and from earlier put in a mention for the not included Windsor Lad, Bahram and The Flying Dutchman. For drama you can’t top 1913 I also like the romantic story of Signorinetta (1908). Sure lots of people will disagree with these opinions but that’s what it’s all about.
Thanks Ben, if we have another lockdown (heaven forbid) what about a list for the Grand National, Gold Cup etc the choice is pretty wide!
Andrew Evzona: I will compile my own list of Top 40 winners of the race itself during my lifetime and I was born in 1955 and they would be as follows based on the performance of the horse himself on that particular day and the opposition they beat, though in doing so my comment on Ben's own list is that Sea Bird II has to be top whilst Sir Ivor would be above Nijinsky as Lester Piggott the jockey himself would confirm and equally so Nashwan would be above Troy as Willie Carson would also confirm,and Steve Cauthen would confirm that Reference Point would be above Slip Anchor. I might add there are three horrific omissions there also ,notably, in chronological order Royal Palace, Relko and New Approach who were all spectacular winners of the race, with the latter winning it despite pulling Kevin Manning's arms out fully for the first seven furlongs. Having the likes of Kris Kin above all of them is a nonsense!
Bob Sewell: Hello Ben, I agree with your listing of Derby greats, Is there a 'Shocking Omission' I'll say there is. How can one overlook the Aga Khans Tulyar. He was undefeated as a 3 year old, winning all seven races in 1952, what distance? you name it, prize money, he doubled the old record for one Season. The Lincoln Trial, Queen Elizabeth Stakes,Eclipse Stakes, Ormonde. St. Leger Stakes. Henry VIII and of course the Derby. Now Ben, if that's not worth a mention I'm at the wrong Pigeon Hole. Hope you know what a Pigeon Hole is? as I used to stand on me tip toes to get me bet on in Belfast back in the old days. What a Great Sport!
Stewart Beesley: Hi There - Just spent a couple of hours on the Derby feature from Ben. Wanted to say I really enjoyed it. I just counted down from 40 to one and I chose that Ben would pick Shergar as top so I wasn’t too far away in 7th. Great pick though Nijinsky and watching these re -runs was a lovely trip down memory lane with the whole Mill Reef story the special highlight for me personally.
Great stuff though loved it.
Martin James: Thank Ben for the effort. If he ever puts his lists in the form of a book, I will certainly buy it.
Paul Jacobs: What a thoroughly informative and entertaining piece on the Derby by Ben Linfoot. The Fred Archer story on Bend Or is something I have never come across. Well done Ben and the team.
Anthony Hampson: It also should be remembered that the 'Nijinsky Team' won the 1970 BBC Sports Personality of the Year Team Award. On Arc day, the BBC shown the race live. 30 minutes later, ITV interrupted the live transmission of 'The Golden Shot' to show a recording of the Arc. These are just two examples of how Nijinsky transcended horse racing.
Andrew Pelis: I can only go through the Derbies I am familiar with, but my top ten, based on quality of winner, depth of field, character of the winner and as a racing spectacle would be:
1) Sea Bird: Sire of Sea Pigeon and a formidable rival for any middle distance horse in history. His turn of foot was immense and his Arc win consolidated his reputation.
2) Troy: He had nowhere to go racing down Tattenham Hill in the 200th Derby. Willie Carson managed to extricate him from the inside rail and once he saw daylight to the outside, he flew home, storming to a seven-length triumph. The horses in behind were quality: Tap On Wood had won the 2,000 Guineas, Niniski became a top class stallion, Northern Baby won the Champion Stakes, Ela Mana Mou became an outstanding four year-old, winning the Prince Of Wales's Stakes, Eclipse and King George and Dickens Hill won the Eclipse Stakes, having landed the Irish Guineas before.
3) Mill Reef: His 2,000 Guineas defeat had been a disappointment, although time would tell it was no disgrace to be beaten by Brigadier Gerard. When he stepped up in trip he was sensational. Mill Reef's class saw him brilliantly win the Derby, the Eclipse, the King George and the Arc. At four he added the Coronation Cup. An all-time great.
4) Reference Point: In my view he was unlucky not to win the Triple Crown. He had emerged in the Futurity Stakes at two, with a wide-margin win. Henry Cecil had aimed at the Guineas, but a sinus operation meant he missed that race, returning with a front-running win in the Dante. At Epsom, he bravely made all, beating a quality line-up that included Most Welcome, Bellotto, Legal Bid and Ajdal. After Mtoto had outpointed him in the Eclipse, Reference Point won a strong King George, Great Voltigeur Stakes and the St Leger. His front-running style may well have been suited by the Guineas Mile.
5) Shergar: Maybe not the strongest renewal, but Shergar and Walter Swinburn more than lived up to the pre-race hype. A rough renewal, Shergar was kept up with the pace and out of trouble and his jockey's audacious move early in the straight oozed confidence. It was well-paid as Shergar pulled further and further away. Glint Of Gold, the Derby Italiano winner was a game second and Kalaglow went on to prove a smart four year-old, winning the Eclipse and King George. Visually the 1981 race was stunning.
6) Teenoso: The spring of 1983 was remarkably wet and a new star emerged, in the shape of Geoff Wragg's Teenoso. It had not even registered that I had seen him race as a two year-old, he did little to suggest what was to come the following year . Victory in the Lingfield Derby Trial confirmed he was an improving horse and soft ground on Derby Day saw Lester Piggott at his finest, beating a huge field that included some fabulous horses of the era: Carlingford Castle, Shearwalk, Salmon Leap, Tolomeo, Morcon and Wassl. Firm ground saw Teenoso not at best effect, in the Irish Derby, as Shareef Dancer waltzed away from Caerleon and Teenoso was not right in the Great Voltigeur. A low key start to his four year-old campaign saw many write Teenoso off as a poor Derby winner, but he then won the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud, before winning a truly great renewal of the King George - on his unfavoured fast ground.
7) Henbit: Few Derby winners overcame the adversity that Henbit did, finishing the race on three legs. A huge field contested the race, including Irish Guineas winner Nikoli, Henry Cecil's Hello Gorgeous and future Irish Derby winner Tyrnavos. But Willie Carson, overlooking Watermill, got Henbit to the front and he bravely repelled Master Willie and Rankin despite fracturing a leg. He was not the same when he returned at four, but a brave horse.
8) Humourist: Another incredibly brave horse with a tragic ending. Racing in the famous Joel silks, Humourist had run third in the 2,000 Guineas, before landing the Derby. However, three weeks later he was found dead in his box, having suffered from tuberculosis. He had effectively won the Derby with only one functioning lung.
9) Generous: If the Dewhurst Stakes had been considered a fluke by many, Generous proved himself a great champion at three. Having run fourth in the 2,000 Guineas, he pulverised a good Guineas field, spread-eagling them in the home straight. Marju, at peak fitness, came a distant second. Generous, a beautiful flaxen colour, in the dark green silks of Prince Fahd Salman, was the brightest star of a golden 1991 campaign. He beat the outstanding Suave Dancer in the Irish Derby and stormed to a memorable victory in the King George.
10) Shahrastani: A tantalising Derby of what ifs which perfectly summed up the drama of sport. Shahrastani had been a run away winner of the Guardian Classic Trial and had followed up in the Dante Stakes. Owned by the Aga Khan and trained by Michael Stoute, he had the perfect Derby profile in any ordinary year. But this was 1986 and Dancing Brave had emerged as a horse of exceptional prowess, quickening powerfully to outsprint future July Cup winner Green Desert, in the 2,000 Guineas. Slight doubts about Dancing Brave's stamina were largely overlooked at Epsom. Walter Swinburn had Shahrastani well-placed throughout, while Greville Starkey had to contend with Dancing Brave becoming unbalanced, out the back. The long home straight saw Starkey move wide and take aim "But oh, so much to do" as Graham Goode observed - "one and a half in which to do it". Shahrastani set sail for home as Dancing Brave's remarkable turn of foot propelled him past horses as if they were trees. He ate into the lead and it became obvious it would be a close run thing. Would Sharastani's lead prove unassailable? Could Dancing Brave catch him. Agonisingly they flashed past the post with Dancing Brave falling short. But the winner went on to annihilate his rivals in the Irish Derby, proving himself an exceptional colt. The rest of the year belonged to Dancing Brave who beat the older horses in the Eclipse, before gaining revenge on Shahrastani in a memorable King George. He beat him again in that never to be forgotten Arc.
So many more great renewals I would have liked to include.
Damien Wright: Phenomenal work , staggered by the detail and each Derby has so many stories brought to life by Ben . Racing is all about the Derby , my favourite race too. Love the races from Fred Archer’s era he was called the demon jockey and rode like a man possessed.
I am amazed there has never been a film made of his ultimately tragic yet thrilling life. I have only been once , a day long round trip of 500 miles from Southport for my 50th to see Masar’s Derby in 2018.
If you haven’t been , GO .What a view from the grandstand. I have been to many tracks and the view at Epsom is by far the best . I just love the idiosyncrasies of the track the size of the climb at the start is quite something , even the final up hill ½ furlong can catch non stayers out.
A thorough test , a supreme test. It almost feels churlish to pick a favourite , like a favourite son or daughter but I go for Lammtarra , 25th on Bens List , a dramatic rush to win from a very good horse , ridden by a maestro in Walter Swinburn . The measure of a good jock must be he gives
his mount the best chance to win and Walter never seemed to make a mistake. I also had £20 ew at a morning price of 20/1!
Dave Chapman: For me it is an easy one, yes there have been great winners of the Derby I particularly liked the wide margin wins of Nashwan Troy and the ill fated Shergar and any winner from my vav trainer the great Sir Henry Cecil was welcomed by myself but none for me can touch the monster that was Mill Reef.
The horse was poss the smallest horse of all time to win the great race but oh what an engine and oh what a heart, after being beaten by poss the greatest miler of all time - before the emergence of the great Frankel the pocket rocket showed what he was all about with a scintillating win in the Blue Ribbon of our great sport -and lets not forget this was only the start of a fantastic end of season for Mill Reef.
To win the Derby Eclipse King George and Arc takes some doing but I for one have no doubt that 1972 would of proved to be just as profitable were it not for such a sickening career ending injury – and lets not forget that even in injury the horse again showed what great courage he possessed.
As a horse he could win from the minimum all the way up to a mile and a half AND he could win on all types of going, I would suggest that any that aren’t familiar with the great horse have a look on You Tube at his Gimcrack win in poss the worst conditions the race has ever been run in (for me one of the most spectacular performances of the last 50yrs). I was only 10 when Mill reef won the Derby and I remember it as if it were yesterday, truly a remarkable horse an underrated (by some) all time great, a 15 hand colossus of the turf.
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