Derby Day is just a week from tomorrow! Get in the spirit with an excerpt from this week’s giveaway book, Never Say Die by James C. Nicholson.
Chapter 1: A Historic Derby Triumph and a Wager That Changed History
A quarter million people braved the cold and damp conditions at Epsom Downs on June 2, 1954, to witness the 175th running of the Derby Stakes, one of grandest scenes in all of sport. Bentleys and Rolls-Royces, bicycles and motorcycles brought Britons from every background to the racecourse, less than fifteen miles south of central London. Among the throng was Queen Elizabeth II, who hoped her colt Landau could improve on his stablemate Aureole’s second-place finish in the previous year’s Derby. Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill adjourned a cabinet meeting early so he could attend the festivities. With the surrounding countryside open to the public, a broad spectrum of humanity that included gypsies, touts, gamblers, and fortune-tellers filled the area around the racecourse, contributing to a spectacle unlike any other on earth. Aristocrats drank champagne, while farmers and laborers ate fish and chips and jellied eels and winkles. Carousels and caravans dotted the landscape as last-minute bets were placed while the field of twenty-two three-year-olds made its way to the starting post.
The Derby Stakes itself had its origins in the inaugural running of the Oaks Stakes for three-year-old fillies at Epsom in 1779. The Oaks was named after the racing lodge of the 12th Earl of Derby, Edward Stanley, who leased the building—a renovated former alehouse—from his uncle by marriage, General John Burgoyne (of American Revolutionary War fame). Following a victory by his filly Bridget in the first Oaks Stakes, the lord held a celebration at his lodge. There, the guests agreed that there should be a similar race organized for colts. According to legend, Lord Derby won a coin flip with influential racing official and member of Parliament Sir Charles Bunbury to determine whose name that race would carry. The following year the first Derby Stakes was held, and it was Bunbury who took the winner’s purse with his outstanding colt Diomed. By supporting racing, Bunbury was carrying on something of a family tradition, in that he was married to a great-granddaughter of King Charles II (her grandfather was the illegitimate son of Charles and his mistress, Louise de Kerouvalle).
One hundred seventy-four years later, a chestnut colt called Never Say Die—his name an allusion to a near-death experience at birth—took the lead in the final quarter mile beneath 18-year-old jockey Lester Piggott and galloped on to a two-length Derby triumph at odds of 33–1, to the astonishment of the hundreds of thousands in attendance and the millions listening to the BBC radio broadcast. With that victory, the colt became the first Kentucky-born horse to win England’s great race, and his owner, a “completely flabbergasted” Robert Sterling Clark, became the first American owner to win the race with an American horse he had bred himself. Never Say Die made newspaper headlines on both sides of the Atlantic, and the most earth-shattering part of the story was that the winner of the Epsom Derby had been foaled in the United States and was owned by an American. In the Derby’s long history, only one other American-born horse had won—Pennsylvania-bred Iroquois in 1881. No horse born in Kentucky, the commercial breeding center of the American Thoroughbred industry, had ever won the great race.
American horsemen were overjoyed at the news that an American horse had won the Derby. In the Thoroughbred Record, a Kentucky-based weekly publication, columnist Frank Jennings noted that, prior to Never Say Die’s victory: “Repeated failure on the part of Americans in the English Derby not only was becoming monotonous but was downright discouraging. Men of less determination and means than Mr. Clark gradually had become reconciled to the idea that a score in the big race at Epsom was virtually impossible with a colt bred and raised on this side of the Atlantic. Never Say Die did a great deal toward changing this thought and at the same time provided a fine example of the fact that American bloodlines, when properly blended with those of foreign lands, can hold their own in the top company of the world.”
To keep reading, enter to win a copy of Never Say Die. The winner will be announced after 1:00pm today!