Epsom Downs Racecourse Guide

The Racetrack at Epsom Downs
The Racetrack at Epsom Downs (Glyn Baker / geograph.org.uk)

Epsom Downs Racecourse hosts some of British racing’s finest flat events and it also houses the third largest racehorse training facility in the country. The course can accommodate around 120,000 spectators and often isn’t too far from reaching this figure during its biggest meetings of the year.

Epsom Downs has been no stranger to visits from the Royal Family during its time and there have been some notable recent visits too. In 2009, The Duchess of Cornwall officially opened the new Duchess’s Stand, and in 2016, Queen Elizabeth II had the privilege of presenting the Derby trophy for the first ever time.

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The Course

The challenge horses face at Epsom’s U-shaped course depends hugely on what distance they will be running. For five furlong races, horses stick to the straight track which is downhill almost the entire way but for the fair rise during the final furlong. The largely downhill nature of the sprint course makes it one of the fastest in the world and suited to runners who like to be quick off the mark.

Races run over distances of six and seven furlongs merge with the straight track with about four furlongs to go once they have tackled the sharp left handed downhill bend of the Tattenham Corner. The tightness of the turn makes it difficult to pass rivals so once again, prominent riders are favoured. For one and a half mile races, Epsom’s longest distance, there is an incredibly testing uphill climb to begin with before reaching the top of the Tattenham Corner.

Overall, agile horses tend to fare better than their long-striding galloping counterparts who can often struggle to deal with the bends, the descents and the awkward camber. It’s a course which will punish any hesitation or slowness in stride and as history has shown us, it is normally the best who tend to shine here.

Major Races

There are three big Group 1 races at Epsom Downs which help draw in the huge crowds during the two day Investec Derby Festival which is held late May/early June. The Oaks is the special occasion on the opening day, a race steeped in history and one that sees three year old fillies compete on the extremely challenging one and a half mile track. It is the third of the British Classic Races and one of two that is restricted to fillies.

Derby Day

The other two Group 1 races take place on the following day, often referred to as Derby Day as it features the highly prestigious mile and half race which is open to colts and fillies. The Derby is the richest horse race in Britain and the most prestigious of the five Classics. A global audience regularly tunes in to see some of the best three year olds around compete in one of British racing’s most prized races.

Coronation Cup

The Derby is accompanied by the Coronation Cup which is run over the same distance. It’s open to horses aged four and above so it has often seen previous Oaks and Derby runners who are looking to put themselves to the test at Epsom once again. Famously, St Nicholas Abbey won this race on three consecutive occasions (2011-2013), a feat which had never been accomplished before.

Visiting

The Finishing Line at Epsom Downs
Epsom Downs Finishing Line (Hugh Craddock / geograph.org.uk)

While the Derby Festival is the most popular time to visit Epsom Downs, there are still several other meetings across the year that feature some great racing action.

Useful Info

Dress Code

The following dress code applies to the Derby Festival only. In the Grandstand Enclosure, reasonably smart attire must be worn, no vests, sports trainers or ripped denim but normal jeans are accepted.

In the hospitality areas, gentlemen must be wearing a jacket and collared shirt (with ties encouraged) and ladies should be wearing a fascinator or hat. These rules also apply in the Queen’s Stand on Ladies’ Day, with the only difference being that a tie for the men is essential, not desired.

On Derby Day in the Queen’s Stand, men must have black or grey morning dress with top hat and women need a formal day dress, or tailored trousers with a hat or substantial fascinator. For all other meetings at Epsom, the dress code is smart casual in the hospitality areas and fairly relaxed in the stands with only ripped jeans, sports shorts and vests not permitted.

Ticket Prices

General admission at Epsom excluding Derby Festival meetings will cost you £16 with an early booking discount, or £20 on the day. For all meetings there are also a range of restaurant packages and private boxes available for hire (minimum 16 guests).

Additionally, there is a popular ‘Winner Package’ which can be purchased in advance for £28. This package gives you a £10 food and drinks voucher, a racecard, a £2 tote bet and a voucher for a free visit to a future meeting at Epsom.

Tickets for the Derby Festival are the only ones radically different to the above, with the limited number of advance tickets costing £48 in the Grandstand Enclosure for each day. Queen’s Stand admission will set you back £105 on Ladies’ Day and £125 on Derby Day. Restaurant packages during the festival start at £425 per person and do sell out so early booking is essential.

Membership

Annual membership at Epsom costs £250 and gives access to the Queen’s Stand and Duchess’s Stand for all meetings. Members are also entitled to a 30% off advanced tickets when purchasing for family and friends and 10% on hospitality packages (excluding the Derby Festival).

Getting There

The racecourse is a matter of minutes away from the centre of Epsom by car but there are several other ways of getting to the action. By train, half a mile away is Tattenham Corner Station and a little further out is Epsom Downs Station, but still well within walking distance.

The third option is to get a train to Epsom Station and then catch the Metrobus from the town centre to Tattenham Corner. On the Derby weekend, there is no need to catch the Metrobus as a shuttle bus service will take you from the station straight to the racecourse.

Parking

Parking is available on-site with prices starting from £6 per vehicle. Booking in advance is possible by calling 0844 579 3004.

History

Painting of the Epsom Derby
Painting of the Epsom Derby (Théodore Géricault / Wikipedia.org)

The demise of the Commonwealth of England in 1660 meant that racing was no longer banned and as a result, Epsom recorded its first meeting a year later in the presence of Charles II. Racing soon became a regular feature in the town and by 1730 there were meetings in May and October, which included prizes courtesy of the local nobility.

The Oaks

In 1778, while at his home called The Oaks, Lord Derby suggested to friends that a new race for three-year-old fillies should feature at Epsom in following year. The Lord’s wish was granted and on 14th May 1779, the one and a half mile race took place, with his own horse, Bridget, taking glory.

Such was the success of The Oaks that it was decided that a new event, featuring colts and fillies should be run alongside it the following year. The name of the new race was decided by the 12th Earl of Derby and leading Jockey Club figure Charles Bunbury supposedly by a coin toss. The coin chose The Derby over The Bunbury Stakes but it wasn’t all bad news for the Jockey Club steward as the opening race was won by his horse, Diomed.

The Prince's Stand

The Royal Family would often visit Epsom around this time, including when the Prince of Wales won the Derby in 1788 with Sir Thomas. Celebrations took place in the Regency Stand, which was the only permanent building on the racecourse until 1831. The stand soon began to struggle to properly accommodate royal guests, however, and in 1879 it was altered, enlarged and renamed the Prince’s Stand. A hundred years later it received extensive refurbishment in celebration of the Derby’s 200th year anniversary and it still stands strong today.