Racing Through History at Britain's Epsom Derby

A man in the morning suit stands in front of the Union Jack at England’s Epsom Derby Chris Jackson / Getty Images

As the colorful 19th-century Whig politician Lord Palmerston put it, "Epsom week is our Olympic Games." That was back in 1847, when both houses of Parliament adjourned for most of the week of the Derby, then the world's most famous horse race. The way Palmerston saw it, the holiday was "part of the unwritten law of Parliament."

The Derby, which takes place every year in early June, is no longer an unofficial national holiday. Now it is run on a Saturday—which is just as well, since any 21st-century politician who would dare suggest that government be suspended to enable Britain's elected leaders to go to the races would be tarred, feathered, and pelted with public crit-icism. But it retains its dual role as sporting spectacle and shared national experience. It was then, and remains now, a socially inclusive event. During the 19th century, crowds were counted in the hundreds of thousands. William Powell Frith's famous canvas Derby Day depicts the entire sweep of Victorian England, from ragged urchins to top-hatted toffs, gathered together to watch a sporting event that is over in two and a half minutes. The beauty of the Derby is that it is simultaneously grand and demotic; the queen attends, and morning coats are worn, but beyond the boxes and stands there is an atmosphere similar to a carnival or rock festival, with open-topped buses, a fairground, and thousands of traveling folk gathering for free on "the Hill."

In a world before televised sports, these few minutes of an early-summer afternoon, during which a field of Thoroughbred racehorses pounded around a stretch of southern English downland, gripped the nation. It was a freewheeling event, a sort of festival of debauchery comprising cockfighting and primitive casino gambling as well as the equestrian entertainment; as there were no barriers, the competing horses would sometimes weave in and out of the crowd as mounted spectators followed on horseback. Within a few years of its founding in 1780, the race was attracting tens of thousands of spectators, including, given the proximity to the capital, a large proportion of the London underworld, who ambushed carriages, picked pockets, ran crooked gaming tables, and generally did their swindling and thieving best to deprive racegoers of any money they might have won.

Happily, I can report that I have never been swindled or robbed at the Derby (although I have lost a few quid, and probably will do so again). The Derby remains, in the words of Harry Herbert of Highclere Thoroughbred Racing, "flat racing's greatest prize." He's not just talking figuratively; the financial re-wards can be immense. In 2005 Herbert and his ownership syndicate (horse racing was into fractional ownership long before yachts and cars) won with a horse called Motivator, which cost £79,000 and earned about £1 million—plus the £6 million for which he was subsequently sold.

While the sporting status of the race has remained intact, it has ceased to dominate the public imagination the way it did in Palmerston's day. However, there are signs that the Derby is beginning to regain its social as well as sporting supremacy. Last year saw the arrival of a new sponsor, Investec, and, in August, new managing director Rupert Trevelyan, who used to work at the Royal Horticultural Society, which organizes another quintessentially British event, the Chelsea Flower Show.

In the frantic few days before the race, I spoke with Trevelyan about the Derby's status as the people's race, the active involvement of new sponsors—such as Bremont watches, the niche timepiece brand that became the official timer in 2008—and the controversial decision to move it to a Saturday to appease the media, as well as the institution of a permanent trophy. "It will be like the FA Cup or the Wimbledon plate," Trevelyan said. "My goal is very simple: once again we are going to stop the nation for the Derby."

I don't know what Nick Clegg or David Cameron would make of that, but I have a feeling Lord Palmerston would have approved.

Foulkes is the author of Gentlemen and Blackguards: Gambling Mania and The Plot To Steal The Derby Of 1844, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.