High up on the bucket list of many a racing fan is a trip to the Surrey venue of Epsom Downs. Home to Britain’s most famous race in the shape of the oft-imitated Derby, fans have been flocking to this spot on the North Downs for centuries now. Lying in the heart of the Surrey countryside, but just 14 miles from the central London landmark of Big Ben, this easily accessible venue continues to rank very highly amongst Britain’s most popular tracks.
Situated just to the South of the historic town of Epsom itself and sitting so close to the bustling capital city, anyone looking to extend their visit with an overnight stay, either before or after the racing, certainly won’t be short of options.
Stay on Track
Scoring top marks for proximity to the track is the Holiday Inn Express London-Epsom Downs which, as the name suggests, is located within the grounds of the course. Offering free parking for visitors and situated a mere 10-minute drive from Epsom Train station, this is an unsurprisingly popular accommodation choice, so be sure to book early.
Within a Few of Miles
Whilst not quite on the course itself, the five-star Westleigh Garden View Rooms are only a little further afield. Sited just 1.3 miles to the west of the track – close enough for a pleasant stroll or a short taxi ride – this picturesque site offers a quiet and relaxing base for racegoers. A similar distance away, but within Epsom Town Centre itself, are the Roomspace Serviced Apartments – Capitol Square.
Other popular centrally located options include AmberBlue@Epsom to the north of Epsom station, and Roomspace Serviced Apartments – Central Walk, just across the road from the station itself. Heading a little further out, but still within five miles of the course, The Lodge @ Kingswood boasts the nice perk of being located within the grounds of a top-class golf course, providing the opportunity for a real sporting weekend for those who fancy combing a day at the races with a round or two of golf.
Seeing the Sights
Of course, being located so close to London, a visit to Epsom offers an ideal chance to mix in a trip to the capital and take in all it has to offer, be that in terms of tourist attractions, or a night on the tiles after the racing. Trains run directly from London to Epsom, with journeys taking around 35 to 45 minutes and, needless to say, the capital offers quite literally thousands of accommodation options, from the budget to the ultra-luxurious, and everything in between.
About the Racecourse
Home to one of the most famous flat races on the planet, Epsom Downs is in fact solely dedicated to events on the level. A quite infrequently used venue relative to many others, the Surrey track lays on only around 10 race days over the course of its season which operates between early May and late September (in line with the core British Flat campaign).
Anything the course may lack in quantity, however, it certainly makes up for in quality and popularity. In fact, boasting a capacity of 120,000 – expanding to 130,000 when factoring in those watching from the public land on the Hill – Epsom is Britain’s largest racecourse.
Frequently attended by the Royal Family, including the Queen herself who makes an annual visit for the Derby, racegoers can expect an excellent race day experience at Epsom. It is a top-class facility all-round and recent improvements include the building of the £23.5 million, 11,000-capacity Duchess Stand in 2009.
Situated just outside the Town Centre, the racecourse is a leisurely stroll away for visitors arriving at Epsom Station or staying within Epsom the night before. And for those who don’t fancy the 20 or 30-minute walk, a taxi from the town centre will have you at the track in under 10 minutes, whilst bus services 460, 480 and 406F reach the course in only three stops. On major race days, including the Derby Festival, an additional shuttle bus service runs from Epsom Station to the track.
Given its proximity to London, Epsom is easily accessible by rail from all areas of the country, and is particularly well served by the Southern and South Western Lines. That said, even racegoers travelling from as far north as Newcastle will reach Epsom Station in around four hours. For those driving to the track, Epsom Downs can be reached via the B290 from Epsom Town Centre, or by turning at Junction 9 of the M25. During the racing season, AA signage will be in evidence marking all approach routes to the course. For those using satellite navigation, KT18 5LQ should be selected as the destination.
Car parking at the track is complimentary to all race day ticket holders with no pre-booking required. The specific car parks in use can vary between meetings, but signage will be in place to direct traffic on the day. Do note however that for many meetings – including the Epsom Derby Festival – it will not be possible to leave your car onsite overnight. For those seeking 24-hour parking, the NCP Car Parks on Epsom High Street and at The Ebbisham Centre both benefit from a secure site and central location.
The track layout at Epsom is one of the most unique in the whole of world racing, consisting not of a standard complete circuit, but rather an open horseshoe shape that is made up of two long and relatively straight sections, and an extensive, gently sweeping left-handed bend. The formation of this horseshoe is also anything but standard – the back straight section rises fully 142ft by the time it reaches the midway point of the course and also features a kink which requires the field to turn right-handed before then veering left-handed into the turn for home.
In addition to the main horseshoe, the course also features three additional spurs containing the starting points for events over five furlongs, six furlongs and seven furlongs. The five-furlong course is notable for the fact that it descends almost all the way to the line, making it the fastest sprint track on the planet. High drawn horses have historically been favoured over this five-furlong trip, particularly those who are able to start quickly, whilst interestingly high numbers also fare well over the Derby distance of 1m4f.
For much of the season at Epsom, the dress code is relatively relaxed. So relaxed in fact that the Hillside Enclosure and Upper Tattenham Enclosure have no listed dress code at all. On a standard race day, those with tickets for the Grandstand (Duchess’s Stand) or Queen’s Stand are advised to arrive in smart casual attire, with smart shorts, smart denim without rips and trainers all being acceptable. Sports shorts and sleeveless tops are forbidden and – this should go without saying really – but it is also recommended that visitors do not arrive topless. Smart lightweight jackets or blazers are encouraged without being essential but do remember to consult the weather forecast and add additional layers/waterproofs as required.
Similar stipulations apply to those with a restaurant or private box ticket, with the exception that shorts are discouraged. Jackets, trousers and a collared shirt for the gents and a smart dress or trouser suit for the ladies are recommended in these areas, with non-ripped jeans also being permitted. At all meetings, other than at the Derby Festival, fancy dress will be allowed in the stands, provided it is not of an offensive nature. Racegoers aspiring to arrive in costume are advised to consult the track in advance in order to confirm the suitability of their proposed outfit.
Do note that whilst the above dress code applies to the majority of the season, the track’s flagship event of the Derby Festival has its own separate dress code. For those with a Grandstand ticket, this code varies only slightly, in that sports trainers are no longer permitted. Ladies are also encouraged to wear a fascinator or hat and gents a smart jacket at this fixture, but neither is listed as a requirement.
It is in the Queen’s Stand Enclosure where the more formal dress code comes into place. Whereas on Oaks Day the Grandstand enclosure code applies, things move up a notch on Derby Day itself. All men must wear either black or grey morning dress including a top hat, Armed Service dress, or National Costume. For the ladies, it’s a formal dress or tailored suit, with the addition of a hat or substantial fascinator which is the order of the day.
For all race days other than the Derby Festival, the Grandstand and Queen’s Stand operate as one enclosure – with one ticket granting access to both sections of the course. This extensive area affords excellent views of both the parade ring and winning post, as well as granting access to a wide range of catering and refreshment options. Prices start at around £20 for normal race days.
For the Derby meeting, the Grandstand and Queen’s Stand operate as separate enclosures. The Grandstand is the cheaper of the two with tickets coming in at between £45 and £95, whilst those in The Queen’s Stand start at £105. A more upmarket affair in terms of the dress code and catering options, The Queen’s Stand affords excellent access to both the parade ring and the prime vantage point of The Queen’s Lawn.
Higher-end options available include the Carvery Experience, the Derby Suite Restaurant and the Classic Box, all of which offer a dining experience, private seating area and access to the hospitality suite. At a standard meeting, prices begin at £109 for the Carvery ticket, moving all the way up to £259 for the VIP experience. This is a little on the pricey side but that does include a champagne reception, a four-course buffet, racing cards and papers, a visit to the parade ring, a tipster talk and an all-inclusive bar!
All of the above options are situated on the stands side of the track but at Epsom, there’s plenty going on in the centre of the course too – particularly on Derby day. A free to access space known as The Hill, this area resembles something of a carnival on the first Saturday in June, complete with spectators watching from open-top buses and all manner of entertainment and food and beverage kiosks.
Whilst much of “The Hill” is completely free to access, there are ticketed enclosures contained within it, including a Garden Zone featuring bars, live music and giant garden games, and the Family Zone in which the child-focused entertainment includes a funfair and face painting. Both the Garden and Family zones tend to be priced slightly cheaper than the cost of entry to the Grandstand.
Also located on the inside of the track, stretching alongside the winning post and away from the hustle and bustle of the more boisterous areas lies the Lonsdale Stand. An ideal spot for a picnic, prices tend to be amongst the cheapest available. A comparable area in terms of facilities, pricing, and the lack of dress code is the Upper Tattenham Enclosure which sits between the stands and the tracks most famous turn.
With only around 10 race days per season, chances to visit the wonderful Epsom Downs aren’t so plentiful as at many other tracks in the land. However, that scarcity, in combination with the fact that the season operates entirely during the warmer months, does mean that those select race days tend to be very well attended. Whenever you plan to visit this track, the advice is to book early.
When looking at the Epsom racing calendar, it is of course the Derby Festival that puts everything else in the shade. The world’s greatest Classic contest isn’t the only show in town though. The seasonal opener of April is always a big occasion, whilst a succession of early evening fixtures – many of which are followed by a live concert from a big-name act – keep racegoers entertained throughout the summer months.
The first weekend in June represents the highlight of the Epsom season, as the two-day extravaganza of the Derby Festival clicks into gear. Kicking off with Ladies’ Day on the Friday afternoon, the fillies take centre stage on the track in the Oaks, whilst in the stands, the fairer sex dons their finery in pursuit of the excellent prizes on offer in the “Style Awards”.
Saturday afternoon then sees things really move up a gear, as the stands throng with punters in readiness for one of Britain’s truly great races – the Derby. With further quality events including the fastest five furlongs in the game of the Epsom “Dash”, and a whole host of additional attractions on offer, it is no wonder that tickets for this event sell out in double-quick time.
Late April each year is when the action all kicks off on the Downs, and the track certainly welcomes the fans with a bang. The excellent handicap double bill of the Great Metropolitan and City and Suburban, together with the Blue Riband Classic Trial take centre stage on the racing front, with a superb array of food, drink and entertainment options adding further to the mix.
Taking place on the final Sunday in September, this seven-race, single-day event has no real standout contests, with the focus being on celebrating the season just gone and giving the track a fitting send-off before it shuts up shop over the winter months. A weekend fixture offering fun for all the family, this is invariably one of the best-attended Sunday meetings of the year.
The first recorded race on the Downs came way back in 1661, but racing may well have taken place considerably earlier than that. Anecdotal evidence details contests from the 1640s, whilst a burial report from 1625 states that a certain William Stanley perished due to breaking his neck during a race in the area. It is safe to say they have been racing around Epsom for a very long time indeed.
The Earl of Derby & Sir Charles Bunbury
By 1730, racing had become firmly established in the area, with 1780 seeing the birth of the race which would make the track so famous. Taking its template from the Oaks, which was established one year earlier, the name of the Derby was decided as a result of a coin toss between the 12th Earl of Derby and Sir Charles Bunbury. Needless to say, the Earl called correctly and the path of the Derby, and its many imitators around the world, was set.
The track’s most famous race was also the scene of its most infamous moment. Over a century ago, 100/1 shot Aboyeur was the surprise winner of the 1913 Derby, but even more shocking were the actions of a lady by the name of Emily Davison. Protesting as part of the Suffragette movement, Emily threw herself in front of the King’s horse, Anmer, during the race. The horse emerged unscathed but, sadly, Emily died of her injuries just a few days later.
The Shergar Horsenapping Incident
1981 then saw one of the track’s greatest triumphs, swiftly followed by a tale of tragedy. Simply sensational in landing that year’s edition of the Derby by a record-setting 10 lengths, the Aga Khan-owned Shergar was set for a lucrative £10 million career at stud. Sadly, only months into that career Shergar was kidnapped – allegedly by IRA terrorists – never to be seen again.
Other Racing Legends
There are, of course, many happier tales to have emerged from this corner of Surrey over the years, with the likes of Nijinsky, Galileo and Sea the Stars all etching their names into the history books, and no doubt many of the great racing tales of the future will be written on the Downs.