How Did the Derby Get Its Name?

Epsom Downs Racecourse
Epsom Downs (Framax97 /

The first Saturday in June can mean only one thing to racing fans – Derby day. This is the jewel in the crown of British Flat racing, and amongst the most anticipated contests on the planet. The Derby Stakes, Epsom Derby or, to most fans, simply the Derby, continues to be one of the sporting highlights of the summer months.

The most influential of Britain’s five Classic contests – which consist of the 1000 Guineas, 2000 Guineas, Oaks (also held at Epsom), Derby and St Leger – this Group 1, 1m4f event, open to three-year-old colts and fillies is one of only a handful of racing events familiar even to non-racing fans. Not quite on the same scale as the Grand National – what race is? – the Derby does nevertheless lead the away amongst the events on the level, and ever since becoming the first outdoor sporting event to be televised in 1931, is a race which has become firmly engrained in British sporting culture.

The Quick Answer

Edward Smith-Stanley, the 12th Earl of Derby, won a coin toss in which the Epsom race was named after his title. The title, ‘Earl of Derby’ was passed down his family line with Derby being a city located in Derbyshire in the English Midlands. Naming a race after the title, Derby, was inspired by his ancestor, James Stanley, the 7th Earl of Derby, who first brought racing to the Isle of Man, naming the race Manx Derby. Edward Smith-Stanley came up with the idea for the Epsom race in 1779, so it seems fitting that the race was named after him.

What Is the Epsom Derby?

Epsom Derby
Epsom Derby (Théodore Géricault /

Other than during the war years of 1915-18 and 1940-45, when Newmarket staged the race, every edition since the debut year of 1780 has taken place around the twists, turns and undulations of the Surrey venue of Epsom Downs. As such it is no surprise that the name of the track has become synonymous with the race itself. When someone says Derby, one of the first words to spring to mind is Epsom.

Also, relatively common knowledge is the fact that the race, known as the “Blue Riband of the turf”, is Britain’s richest Flat event – set to offer over £1million in total prize money in 2021. A look through the roll of honour meanwhile throws up a whole host of equine superstars – horses instantly recognisable both to racing aficionados and fans of the wider sporting scene. The ill-fated Shergar, brilliant Nijinsky, dominant Sea the Stars and breeding titan, Galileo, are all engrained in racing legend at least in part due to their success in this event.

What is not so widely known however is just why the race is called the Derby in the first place. So, where exactly does this name – now a common feature in horse racing, not only in Britain, but all around the world – come from?

A Strange Precedent: James Stanley

James Stanley
James Stanley (Sir Anthony Van Dyck /

It may be the most famous Derby on the planet, but Epsom’s mile and a half showpiece is not the first event to have taken the title. That honour belongs to the Isle of Man’s “Manx Derby”, which first took place back in the early 17th century.

And, why Derby? The answer to this question lies in the title of the man who first brought racing to the Isle of Man – a gentleman going by the name of James Stanley. Lancashire born Stanley enjoyed a number of titles during his time as a nobleman and politician, ranging from the rather powerful sounding Lord of Mann to the less flattering Lord Strange. He was also, however, the 7th Earl of Derby – Derby being a city located in Derbyshire in the English Midlands. Lending his title to the new race, the “Manx Derby” was born, and around 150 years later a similar scenario, involving one of Stanley’s descendants, would lead to the naming of Britain’s biggest Flat race.

Ed’s You Win

Edward, 12th Earl of Derby
Edward Smith-Stanley (

Fast forward to 1779, and whilst James Stanley was no longer with us, the title of Earl of Derby had been kept within the Stanley family – now being in the hands of Edward Smith-Stanley. An Eton and Cambridge educated member of the aristocracy, Edward acted as the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in both the Fox-North coalition government, and the modestly named Ministry of All the Talents.

In addition to his governmental duties – and in common with his forebearer, James Stanley – Edward, the 12th Earl of Derby, rather enjoyed a day at the races. So much so that in 1778 Smith-Stanley devised a high-class race to take place at Epsom Downs the following year. Restricted to the most talented three year old fillies, this new event was handed the title of the Oaks Stakes in honour of the Oaks estate leased to the Earl at the time. This race is now the second oldest of Britain’s five Classics, the St Leger having been founded in 1776.

If you are going to invent a race, then you might as well win it, and sure enough it was the Earl himself who owned the first ever Oaks winner in 1779 – a filly going by the name of Bridget. And not content with founding the fillies’ event, the party following the success of Bridget resulted in plans being drawn up for a race to be held over the same course and distance, but also open to the colts.

The Coin Toss

But what to call this new contest? Unlike James Stanley on the Isle of Man all those years before, Edward seems to have had some competition when it came to christening this new event. Sir Charles Bunbury, Steward of the Jockey Club at the time, took a major role in helping found the race, and was therefore understandably keen that the event should take his – and not the Earl of Derby’s – name.

Being gambling men, what better way to decide on whom the honour should be bestowed than by the age old method of tossing a coin. Needless to say, the coin came down in favour of the 12th Earl, the Derby Stakes was born and the rest is history. In other words, had a coin landed differently around 250 years ago, we would be talking of the Epsom Bunbury, rather than Derby and even the Kentucky Bunbury!

Sir Charles may have missed out on the naming of the race, but it was he who had his name up in lights a year later, with his colt Diomed becoming the first ever Derby winner. Earl Edward wasn’t too long in following suit though, with his Sir Peter Teazle coming out on top in 1787.

Oft Imitated, Never Bettered

Whenever something becomes successful, imitators are never too far behind, and so it has been with the Derby. So much so, that of the seven continents on the planet, only Antarctica – native population 0 – does not hold a Derby race of some description.

Near neighbours France were first to join the Derby party with the launch of the French Derby, or Prix du Jockey Club in 1836, whilst our antipodean cousins caught wind of the race and rattled off a quickfire hat-trick of Derby contests in the shape of the Victoria Derby (1855), New Zealand Derby (1860) and Australian Derby (1861). And others soon followed; Ireland, Germany, Hong Kong, Italy, India, Singapore and Japan all have one, whilst we have already mentioned America’s most famous race, The Kentucky Derby, which also traces its title back to that post-race party back in 1779.

So, as mentioned, but for the toss of a coin all of the above would most probably have taken the name of Bunbury. The Kentucky Bunbury, French Bunbury or Swedish Trotting Bunbury anyone? Doesn’t have quite the same ring to it does it, but then had Sir Charles won the toss, we likely would never have known any different.