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One of the things I most enjoy about spring is the excitement of the horseracing season. While most Americans are familiar with the American Triple Crown, a series of three races established in the late 19th century that represent the zenith of achievement for a Thoroughbred race horse, most are unaware of its British roots. 

Many of the 18th century nobility were obsessed with racing (as depicted in my debut novel, THE HIGHEST STAKES). Over the past two centuries, the name "Derby" has become synonymous with great races all over the world, but the Epsom Derby is the original. Established in the late 18th century, it began a long tradition of Triple Crown racing that has been adopted worldwide. The origination of this English Triple Crown serves as the backdrop for two stories from my new erotic historical Devil DeVere Series set in late Georgian England.

The St. Leger Stakes,  originally proposed as the Rockingham Stakes was devised by the Marquess of Rockingham, an avid turfman and  Anthony St. Leger, an army officer and politician who lived near Doncaster, South Yorkshire. The inaugural running was held at Cantley Common on 24 September 1776  and later moved to its present location, Town Moor, in 1778. The first winner was a filly owned by Rockingham. 
Run over 1 mile, 6 furlongs and 132 yards (2,937 metres) The St. Leger is currently the final leg of the English Triple Crown, which begins with the 2,000 Guineas, and continues with the Derby. It also completes the Fillies' Triple Crown, following on from the 1,000 Guineas and the Oaks.
The Epsom Derby, co-founded by the 12th Earl of Derby and Sir Charles Bunbury, the Steward of the British Jockey Club,  originated at a celebration following the first running of the Oaks Stakes (A race only for fillies) in 1779. When a second race was proposed to include stallions and geldings, it was named by coin toss between Lord Derby and Bunbury. Although Lord Derby won the toss, Sir Charles won the inaugural race with his young stallion Diomed. The race is currently run over 1 mile 4 furlongs and 10 yards (2,423 metres) at Epsom Downs Racecourse in Epsom, Surrey.

The 2,000 Guineas, first run on 18 April 1809 was followed by the introduction of a fillies only race called the 1,000 Guineas, both established by the  Jockey Club under the direction of  Sir Charles Bunbury, the co-founder of the Derby at Epsom.  It is currently Britain's richest and most prestigious horse race, sometimes referred to as the "Blue Riband" of the turf. The race currently serves as the middle leg of the British Triple Crown. The 2,000 Guineas Stakes was first held in 1809, run over 1 mile (1,609 meters) at Newmarket.

The Kentucky Derby- In 1872, Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., grandson of William Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition, traveled to England, visiting the Epsom Derby run since 1780. After returning home to Kentucky, Clark organized the  Louisville Jockey Club for the purpose of raising money to build a racing facility later to be named Churchill Downs after his relatives, John and Henry Churchill, who had provided the land for the racetrack. On May 17, 1875, in front of an estimated crowd of 10,000 people, a field of 15 three-year-old horses contested the first Derby, run at 1½ miles (2.4 km), the same distance as the Epsom Derby. In 1896, "The run for the roses" was changed to its current 1¼ miles (2 km).

Preakness Stakes  In 1873 Maryland Governor Oden Bowie named a new mile and one-half (2.41 km) race in honor of the colt Preakness who won the Dinner Party Stakes on the day Pimlico opened (October 25, 1870). After Preakness won, his jockey, Billy Hayward, untied a silk bag of gold coins that hung from a wire stretched across the track from the judges’ stand, thereby establishing the “wire” at the finish line and the awarding of “purse” money. The race is currently run over 1-3/16 miles (1.91 km) dirt track at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Maryland.

The Belmont Stakes  was first held at  Jerome Park in The Bronx but moved twice until the 1905 opening of the new Belmont Park, 430 acres (1.7 km2) racetrack in Belmont, Long Island New York. It is currently run over 1-1/2 miles (2.41 km), the longest dirt track in thoroughbred racing.
Although several horses have come close, it has now been 33 years since a single horse (Affirmed in 1978) has won all three races of the U.S Triple Crown.

(Photo taken by my husband last year at the Kentucky Oaks)
Although the triple crown is largely dominated by male horses, there is also a national Triple Tiara (formerly known as the Filly Triple Crown) in both the US and the UK, Kentucky Oaks, run over 1⅛ miles on a dirt track, at Churchill Downs; THE Black-Eyed Susan Stakes, run over 1⅛ (previously 1-1/16) miles on a dirt track, at Pimlico; The Acorn Stakes, run over 1 mile on a dirt track, at Belmont (previously 1-1/2 miles); Thus far, only one filly Davona Dale (1979) has won the national Filly Triple Crown.  In Britain there is also a Fillies Triple Crown for a filly winning the 1,000 Guineas, Epsom Oaks, and St Leger Stakes. 
(A day at the races!)

Last year I was able to attend the Kentucky Oaks and the Derby and had a fabulous time! I truly believe it's one of those events everyone should experience once.  Although I won't be there this year due to my decision to attend  The Heart of Dixie Reader's luncheon instead (May 5, 2012) I will be there in spirit and have every intention of wearing my new Derby hat!


  1. Thanks for the info! I don't know much about horse racing in the Georgian/Regency period, so it was informative. As far as modern times, I don't like horse racing at all, actually. I think it exploits the horses.

  2. Emery,

    I would love to go to the Kentucy Derby just to wear one of those awesome hats. There isn't enough opportunities to wear hats anymore. :-)

    I hope you have a great time a the readers luncheon. And thanks for all the great info.

  3. Oops! Poor grammar this morning. There AREN'T enough opportunities... ;D

  4. And you didn't even start on the hats, oh the hats, and the morning grey attire for the fellows, and the royal interest in racing... I used to manage dressage shows--not a thoroughbred sport to speak of these days--but on Derby Day, we HAD to stop all the rings before post time, because every rider in every barn was gathered around a television, radio, or computer screen tuning in to "the most exciting two minutes in all of sports."
    Though, alas, Shana has a point: Particularly on the American flat track, we need to make some changes.

  5. @ Shana- I agree with the exploitation of the horses- especially the age at which they race now. In early Geoegian times they didn't race until 5 or 6 years old. But attending the races was fun and exciting all the same.

    @Samantha- I bought my Derby hat all the same and am wearign it to the Readers Luncheon.

    @ Grace- Yes, I also love how this event is steeped in true blue-blood tradition.

  6. I was actually at the Derby when Affirmed won. As a native Louisvillian, my heart is always at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May, even though I've lived in Indiana for more than twenty years. Thanks for a great post, Emery!

  7. Emery~

    What a fascinating post. Who knew? I love the Derby, and the horse movies that come out of it. I've always had a thing for horses though...

  8. I loved reading it all! I always watch the Triple Crown races on tv and would love to go to the Kentucky Derby one day. Sad to say but many things are exploited these days. But the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont also gives us many reasons to celebrate beautiful, powerful, and full of heart horses. Perhaps I'll make it to the Derby when I retire!

  9. I loved reading it all! I always watch the Triple Crown races on tv and would love to go to the Kentucky Derby one day. Sad to say but many things are exploited these days. But the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont also gives us many reasons to celebrate beautiful, powerful, and full of heart horses. Perhaps I'll make it to the Derby when I retire!

  10. What great info. I have to admit I have read your stories and love them,but know very little about horse racing. Thank you for the info and for writing your intriguing stories.


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