Epsom Downs History
Epsom Downs can claim to be the home of the most famous racecourse in the world. The qualities of the chalk downland turf of Epsom for horse-racing was recognised in the early 17th century. Originally there was a straight course, which started on Banstead Downs to the east, and ended up running into the finishing straight at Epsom. The first of what was contemporarily described as the 'obicular course' was marked out in the early 18th century.
Races were usually ran over a four mile course with heats before the final. The gentry would come up in their carriages from Epsom Town in the morning to watch a few heats and then retire back down the hill for a lengthy lunch. They then returned in the afternoon for more heats and the final. Little consideration seems to have been given to the welfare of the horse, which might end the day having covered up to 32 miles!
A group of rich enthusiasts, including Sir Charles Bunbury and the 12th Earl of Derby, were convinced that the future of racing lay in having much shorter races without heats, run on the 'orbicular' or semi-round course. As a result 'The Oaks' was first run at Epsom in 1779 to be followed a year later by 'The Derby'. 'The Oaks' was named after Lord Derby's house at nearby Woodmansterne, but the name of the world's most famous race was apparently decided between Bunbury and Derby by the toss of a coin.
At the height of its popularity Derby Day attracted over a quarter of a million spectators to the Downs, but numbers have fallen in recent years. Perhaps, the fact that the race can be viewed in its entirety on television has had something to do with it. However, there is surely no substitute for the excitement of actually being there. Here a cross-section of all humanity can be observed, and there is the fun of the fair, the swings and roundabouts, the variety of brightly-coloured stalls, and a certain 'buzz' which cannot be compared.
Epsom Downs Station was opened in 1865, bringing thousands of racegoers to the meetings. In more recent times some parts of the Downs have been developed for housing but they have retained much of their 'wide open' character for both residents and visitors to enjoy.