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How the Derby became Derby Day

25 October 2021 Written by Andrew Lemon

The 2021 Penfolds Victoria Derby writes a new chapter in the grand history of Flemington’s most coveted classic for three-year-old stayers.

Derby Day at Flemington is, simply stated, Australia’s most anticipated race day of the year. With the racecourse at its glorious best, and with top-class racing across the card, it is the day the party begins.

Consider the illustrious roll call of winners of the Victoria Derby itself. The list is graced by equine giants, the likes of Wallace, Manfred, Sailor’s Guide, Sky High and Tobin Bronze, Dulcify, Red Anchor and Mahogany. In a timeline stretching from Lantern to Efficient, seventeen Victoria Derby champions have also won a Melbourne Cup.

The Victoria Derby pays homage to one of the world’s oldest classics, the English Derby first run at Epsom in 1780 – eight years before the First Fleet arrived in New South Wales. England’s Derby Day was to Londoners as Melbourne Cup Day became to Australians, the great racing holiday of the year.

For us, Penfolds Victoria Derby Day is just the beginning. It declares the Melbourne Cup Carnival open.

The Epsom Derby distance is a mile and a half. So too was the Victoria Derby until Australian racing converted to metrics in 1972. The nearest round number is 2400 metres, so this meant moving the starting barriers fourteen metres closer to the first turn. Dayana won that year, but in 1973 for the sake of fairness and safety the VRC extended the distance to 2500 metres, with champion Taj Rossi the winner.

Officially the Penfolds Victoria Derby is open to three-year-old colts, geldings and fillies, at set weights. Fillies have a two-kilogram allowance. In practice they rarely contest the race, connections aiming instead for the Kennedy Oaks.

Curiously, fillies won several runnings of the Victoria Derby in the colonial era. Briseis from Geelong famously took the Derby, Melbourne Cup and Oaks in the space of six days. But it is now nearly a century since a filly triumphed in the Victoria Derby – Frances Tressady in 1923. The last to run a place was Born To Be Queen, finishing third as favourite in 1985.

While hot favourites and champions have won the Victoria Derby, so too have longshots, most notably the South Australian colt Rebel Raider in 2008, ridden by Clare Lindop claiming the race at 100/1. 

Derby Day at Flemington is treasured, over and above the race itself. In 1925, a reporter from distant Broken Hill said, ‘I always think that Derby Day is the best day’s racing of the year’. That truth has never dated. Nor has the classic elegance of Derby Day dressing, whatever the fashion.

But when was the very first Victoria Derby? And when did Derby Day become that blue-ribbon day to open the Melbourne Cup Carnival?

The race record dates back to 1855. It was the ‘Victoria Turf Club’ which introduced a set-weight Derby in spring for three-year-olds over the Epsom Derby distance. In a field of eight a filly, Rose of May ridden by Sam Holmes, was victorious.

The Turf Club in that gold-rush era soon had a rival, the Victoria Jockey Club, which also raced at Flemington. Both clubs presented a Derby that year, the filly Tricolor winning the Jockey Club’s event and the colt Union Jack taking the Turf Club version.

Luckily for simplicity, Brownlock in 1858 and Buzzard a year later won both races. In 1860 the Turf Club renamed its three-year-old race the ‘Victoria Stakes’, leaving the Jockey Club in possession of the Derby. It was won by the well named Flying Colours.

Four years later these rival clubs disbanded, and the new Victoria Racing Club took their place. In those days it was the Cup that opened the spring racing carnival. Over three consecutive days in 1864 the brown colt Lantern won the Melbourne Cup, the VRC’s first Derby and the one-mile Publicans’ Purse.  

The actual name “Victoria Derby” first appeared in 1868, with the race switched to New Year’s Day. This explains how the champion colt Fireworks appears twice in the record books as the Derby winner, for he had already won the VRC Derby the previous spring.

But spring in Melbourne was where the Derby rightly belonged. The VRC returned the Derby to spring after the following racing season, and for the first time it was scheduled for the Saturday before the Melbourne Cup.

And this explains why there are two names on the Victoria Derby winners’ list for 1869. The filly My Dream won on New Year’s Day, and the colt Charon won the version in spring.

Indeed Charon’s Victoria Derby became the first to open a four-day Melbourne Cup Carnival, much as we know it today. Weather: glorious (not always guaranteed). Costumes: elegant, brilliant. The sport: ‘capital’. Derby Day at Flemington.

Image credits:  1929 Victoria Derby Presentation to the winner Phar Lap and trainer Harry Telford. (VRC Collection)

Clare Lindop makes history as the first female jockey to win the Victoria Derby with an impressive victory aboard outsider Rebel Raider in 2008. (Slattery Media/VRC Collection)