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At Epsom Downs this weekend, two of the most famous horse races in the world take place: The Derby and the Oaks. Even if you don’t know anything about them, here is all you need to a) sound like an expert; b) place a bet with a good hope of doing well, and c) turn up and go to the races.
The Oaks is on Friday 1st June.
The Derby is on Saturday 2nd June.
Epsom Downs is about 30 minutes south of London, just inside the M25. Racing has been held here since about 1660.
Around 125,000 people will turn up on Derby Day. The cheapest ticket to one of the most prestigious racedays in the world will set you back only £5 and you will see some of the best horses in the world for that.
A Simple Guide To Horse Racing For Beginners
There’s a track, usually circular or oval, and a bunch of horses with little men wearing bright colours on their backs. Over an afternoon’s race meeting there’s around 6-8 races, with about a thirty minute gap between each race. This is the time you drink, eat and place bets.
There are two different types of horse racing – National Hunt or Flat. National Hunt racing involves horses jumping over fences. In Britain this happens in the winter, when the most famous races are the Cheltenham Gold Cup and the Grand National.
Flat Racing (“The Sport Of Kings”) is the posher type of racing. It involves horses running very fast and there are no fences. The Derby is this kind of race. Flat racing takes places in Britain over the summer, and has the kind of race days you sometimes see on the TV, like Royal Ascot and Glorious Goodwood, with men in top hats, women in ridiculous hats and members of the Royal Family with binoculars, often sitting in Cinderella-style horse-drawn carriages.
Horses start flat racing at the age of two or three. A lot of them retire when they are three, although some go on for a couple more years. (Some retire before they are three, like our horse Superinjunction, because they don’t like racing.)
The most valuable thing about successful flat racehorses is what they do after the track – breeding new flat race horses – so they don’t race for long in case they start to lose races and therefore drop in value. They then go to a stud farm and get to hang out having sex with other incredibly expensive horses for years, so for the horses in the Derby winning is very important as it is likely to decide the quality and quantity of their sexual partners forever. For the owners of the horses the Derby is also important because they get to make lots of money, or not.
While there are more lucrative races for older horses, the races which take place solely for three-year olds are probably the most famous. There are five in Britain called The Classics, and between May and September the best three year old horses run in them. In May there are the 1000 Guineas (girl horses “fillies” only) and 2000 Guineas (boys/colts – fillies can run, but don’t very often). These races are one mile long. In June you get the Oaks and Derby. These are one and a half miles long. In September, there’s the St Leger (girls and boys), and it’s 1.75m long.
The Derby, or Epsom Derby – The Derby is the most prestigious of all these races – 1.5 miles is considered the most important as to win, the horse needs both speed and stamina. It’s quite a long way for three year olds, many of them won’t yet have run a race this long. There are other similar Derbys, based on this one which is always run at Epsom Downs, Surrey, e.g. France, Ireland. In America it is the Kentucky Derby. (If you really want to show off that you know the American Triple Crown it is the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont – and here Derby is not pronounced Dar-bee, but Dur-bee.)
Very occasionally a horse does win more than one of the classics – the 2000 Guineas/Derby/St Ledger trio is called the Triple Crown, and considered the ultimate test of a three year old horse. The last time a horse won the Triple Crown (and the only time since the 1930s) was in 1970, a horse called Nijinsky. Since 1987 no Derby winner has even bothered entering the St Leger.
In America a horse called I’ll Have Another* has won the first two legs of the Triple Crown. It was most unexpected as he only cost his owners $11,000.
* Being an American horse, I’ll Have Another was named after his owner’s liking for his wife’s cookies (rather than more booze, as if he’d been a Brit horse).
The last horse to win the 2000 Guineas and Derby was See The Stars in 2009. Sadly the horse was sent off to stud when he was still only three.
The winner of the 2000 Guineas this year, Camelot, is the very hot favourite for the Derby.
The Oaks – The first running of the Oaks was in 1779, one year before the first Derby. It was won by a horse called Bridget, who was owned by Lord Derby. While the Derby is, in theory, open to all thoroughbred three year-olds, the Oaks is just for girls.
Jockey - the little fella on the horse’s back
Silks - the colours of the owner the jockey is wearing (a bit like a football strip)
Furlongs - there are eight of them in a mile. These races are run over 12 furlongs. You can see how far the horses have to run as the number of furlongs is printed on marking posts by the side of the race-course.
Form: what the horses have done in previous races and where they finished in the race
Stalls: the weird metal thing they push the horses into before the race so they all start at the same time
Epsom Downs: the name of the course the race is run on Tattenham Corner: left-handed bend towards the end of the race which is quite difficult for horses to negotiate and may affect the outcome of the race – most tracks are right-handed, or clockwise.
These show how likely it is for the horse to win the race. They are usually in the form of a fraction – eg 5-1 – which would mean the bookmaker think it has got 5 times as many chances of losing as winning. e.g if you bet five pounds to win at 5-1 – if it wins you win 5 x 5 pounds – 25 pounds – plus your fiver back
“Evens” – means its got as good a chance of winning as losing. 1-5 means it is thought to be very likely to win. The favourite is the horse that the bookies/people think has most chance of winning. He will have the shortest odds.
Each way – You can bet on a horse to finish in the first three of the race – you get 1/4 of the odds
e.g if you bet five pounds each way on a 8-1 horse. you have to give over ten pounds total – 5 pounds which backs it to win, and 5 pounds to back it for a place. (In some races you will win an each way bet if the horse finishes fourth or fifth – it depends on the number of horses in the race.)
When you look at a racecard it usually has the name of the horse, the name of the trainer, owner and jockey. Plus the age of the horse and what weight the horse is carrying. The little coloured picture will denote what colours the jockey will be wearing.
For the Oaks and Derby – every horse is three and every horse will carry 9st (the jockey plus any extra weights added to the saddle to equal this total) so these two factors aren’t important to judge between horses.
To the left of the horses name will be a row of numbers. These indicate where they finished in their previous races – the number closest to the horse’s name is his last race. (1 = first, 0 = not in the first five, P = pulled up, didn’t finish) The numbers may be separated by a -, e.g. 1-1. Anything to the right of the dash means it
happened this season, when the horse was three, and before the dash means last season.
The Derby 2012 – Runners and Riders
* Camelot is the big favourite, after winning the 2000 Guineas on much softer ground than he’d like. He is trained by Ireland’s Aidan O’Brien, who hasn’t had a Derby winner for a decade so must be due one.
* Bonfire is the second favourite, after winning the Dante stakes at York in May. He is trained by Andrew Balding. His sister is Clare, off the telly. Three of the last ten Derby winners also won the Dante.
* Parish Hall won a big race for two year-olds in the Autumn and is well thought of, but he’s not raced this year yet so it’s hard to know how good he is.
* Last year the race was won by a French horse, Pour Moi. This year’s french challenger is Kesampour. He has just won the same race as Pour Moi did last year on route to the Derby.
The Oaks 2012 – Runners and Rider
* Vow was trained by the same trainer as last year’s winner Dancing Rain, who was his first ever runner in the race. He is trying to become the shortest named winner since 1967. (There have only been two other 3-letter winners in history – Tag 1789, Pia 1967).
* Maybe is favourite, and was second in 2000
* The Fugue is the one for you if you like dreadful musicals – it’s owned by Andrew Lloyd Webber.
* Kailani has Mikael Barzelona on board and is a late entry so they obviously think she’s good.
To place a bet on this year’s races, click here
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