Horse Racing

Epsom preparing to start. By James Pollard 1830
Epsom preparing to start.   By James Pollard c1830

Horse racing on the Downs no doubt started as a simple race between friends on horseback galloping between two points over the open terrain, jumping hedges and ditches on their way. By Pepys' time (1660s) there were regular noonday races. These developed into a series of heats over a four-mile, straight course between Carshalton and Epsom Downs. Between heats the horses were rubbed down at a wooden shed. By 1801 ale and other refreshments were being sold at the shed.

The original building is believed to have dated from the 1750s but on 3 June 1857 the pub, outbuildings and stabling caught fire and were destroyed. In 1863 grandiose plans were drawn up to build a hotel on the site, but at an estimated cost of £80,000- four times the cost of the Grand Stand built thirty three years earlier - it was unaffordable and a more modest plan was adopted. The new building was called the Downs Hotel and this name continued until the 1960s when the name was changed back to "The Rubbing House" thus recalling its origins. By 2003 the Rubbing House had become shabby and dilapidated, and the owners applied for permission to refurbish and extend the property to include a restaurant but in the same style as the original. The refurbishment was completed in 2004. The glass panels with etchings of race horses and the iron railings on the balcony have been preserved from the earlier building and help to preserve the original atmosphere.

The Grandstand

The first permanent grandstand was proposed by Charles Bluck of Doncaster. In 1829 he took out a ninety-year lease from the Lord of the Manor on a one acre plot of Downs' land for £30 per year. Bluck planned a relatively small and simple building to cost in the region of £5000. A group of Epsom locals had bigger ideas and set up the Epsom Grand Stand Association (EGSA). They persuaded Bluck to sub-let the land for £1000. To raise the necessary capital, the EGSA issued one thousand £20 shares so that they could build a stand for up to five thousand spectators together with four refreshment rooms and a 108ft long saloon.(See the inset below) The building was designed by EW Trendall. Although it was not fully finished, it was used for the 1830 Derby meeting.

Epson races by T Allom.  c1842
Epson races by T Allom c1842

The Oaks

In 1778 the 12th earl of Derby, Edward Smith Stanley, challenged friends at a dinner party to race their three-year old fillies over a distance of one and a half miles. He named it The Oaks after the Woodmansterne estate he leased in Banstead from his uncle, General Burgoyne. The Earl's horse, Bridget, won the first ever Oaks. The race has continued every year since and still is a major event in the English flat racing calendar. Click here for a list of Oaks winners.

Derby_at_Epsom_c1820 by Theodore Gericault
Derby at Epsom c1820.    By Theodore Gericault

The Derby

The Derby is run "on the flat" by, three-year old, thoroughbred horses. It is considered to be one of the most prestigious horse races in the world and is the second leg of the English Triple Crown, preceded by the Two Thousand Guineas Stakes and followed by the St. Leger Stakes. Winners of the Derby often go on to compete in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in France or the United States Breeders' Cup.

In 1779 Sir Charles Bunbury and the 12th Earl of Derby flipped a coin for the privilege of having a new race named after them. The Earl won the toss so the race was called the Derby but it was Bunbury's horse, Diomed, that won the first ever Epsom Derby in 1780 and collected prize money of £1,065 15s. The Earl first won the race named after him in 1787 with a horse called Sir Peter Teazle.

The first four races were over a distance of 1 mile (1.6 km) but this was increased in 1784 to 1 mile and 4 furlongs (1.5 miles or 2.4 km) when the famous Tattenham Corner was added. The 1913 Derby was the setting for a suffragette publicity stunt that ended in the death of Emily Davison (See separate entry). Surprisingly archive newsreel footage exists of both the race and Emily Davison's funeral procession, clips of which can be viewed at Screen Archive South East. During the First World War the race was temporarily moved to Newmarket and the 1915-1918 races were called the New Derby Stakes. Click here for a list of Derby winners.

You may also be interested in the following topics Cicero and Derby Celebrations 1905.

[VOL. XIII, NO. 372.]         SATURDAY, MAY 30, 1829.         [PRICE 2d.]

Epsom New Race Stand.

Image of the 1829 Grandstand at Epsom Downs

We do not wish to compete with the "List of all the running horses, with the names, weights, and colours of the riders," although the proximity of our publication day to the commencement of Epsom Races (June 2), has induced us to select the above subject for an illustration.

The erection of the New Race Stand is the work of a company, entitled the "Epsom Grand Stand Association"--the capital £20,000, in 1,000 shares of £20 each. The speculation is patronized by the Stewards of the Jockey Club, and among the trustees is one of the county members, C.N. Pallmer, Esq. The building is now roofed in, and temporary accommodation will be provided for visitors at the ensuing Spring Races. It is after the model of the Stand at Doncaster, but is much larger, and will accommodate from 4 to 5,000 persons. The style of the architecture is Grecian.

The building is 156 feet in width, including the Terrace, and 60 feet in depth, having a portico the width, returning on each side, which is connected with a spacious terrace, raised ten feet above the level of the ground, and a magnificent flight of steps in the centre. The columns of the portico are of the Doric order, supporting a balcony, or gallery, which is to be covered by a verandah, erected on small ornamental iron pillars, placed over those below. The upper part of the Stand is to have a balustrade the whole width of the front. With reference to the interior arrangements, there are four large and well-proportioned rooms for refreshments, etc.; a spacious hall, leading through a screen of Doric columns to a large and elegant staircase of stone, and on each side of the staircase are retiring rooms of convenience for gentlemen. The entrance to this floor is from the abovementioned terrace and portico in front; and also, at the back, by an entrance which forms a direct communication through the building. The first floor consists of a splendid room, 108 feet in length, and 34 in width, divided into three compartments by ornamental columns and pilasters, supporting a richly paneled ceiling, and having a direct communication with the balcony, or gallery; and on each side of the staircase there are retiring rooms for the ladies, with the same arrangements as those below for the gentlemen. The roof will contain about 2,000 persons standing; affording, at the same time, an opportunity for every one to see the whole of the race (Derby Course) which at one time was considered doubtful.

The architect is Mr. W. Trendall; and the builder Mr. Chadwick.

By a neat plan from a survey by Mr. Mogg, the "Stand" is about ten poles from the Winning Post. It must have a most commanding view of the surrounding country--but, anon, "may we be there to see."

Text & image source Project Gutenberg (Opens in a new window)

British Pathe (Opens in a new window) have many images of Epsom Horse Races. Click here for the Offical Epsom Downs website (Opens in a new window)

This article was researched and written by Peter Reed, 2006

Emily Davison
Emily Davison
Derby Day 1905
Derby Day 1823
Derby Day 1823