A guest blog on the “Sport of Kings” by equine enthusiast and historical author Emery Lee

One of the things I most enjoy about spring is the excitement of the horseracing season. While most Americans are familiar with the American Triple Crown, a series of three races established in the late 19th century that represent the zenith of achievement for a Thoroughbred race horse, most are unaware of its British roots.

Many of the 18th century nobility were obsessed with racing (as depicted in my debut novel, THE HIGHEST STAKES). Over the past two centuries, the name “Derby” has become synonymous with great races all over the world, but the Epsom Derby is the original. Established in the late 18th century, it began a long tradition of Triple Crown racing that has been adopted worldwide. The origination of this English Triple Crown serves as the backdrop for two stories from my new erotic historical Devil DeVere Seriesset in late Georgian England.


The St. Leger Stakes,  originally proposed as the Rockingham Stakes was devised by the Marquess of Rockingham, an avid turfman and  Anthony St. Leger, an army officer and politician who lived near Doncaster, South Yorkshire. The inaugural running was held at Cantley Common on 24 September 1776  and later moved to its present location, Town Moor, in 1778. The first winner was a filly owned by Rockingham.


Run over 1 mile, 6 furlongs and 132 yards (2,937 metres) The St. Leger is currently the final leg of the English Triple Crown, which begins with the 2,000 Guineas, and continues with the Derby. It also completes the Fillies’ Triple Crown, following on from the 1,000 Guineas and the Oaks.


The Epsom Derby, co-founded by the 12th Earl of Derby and Sir Charles Bunbury, the Steward of the British Jockey Club,  originated at a celebration following the first running of the Oaks Stakes (A race only for fillies) in 1779. When a second race was proposed to include stallions and geldings, it was named by coin toss between Lord Derby and Bunbury. Although Lord Derby won the toss, Sir Charles won the inaugural race with his young stallion Diomed. The race is currently run over 1 mile 4 furlongs and 10 yards (2,423 metres) at Epsom Downs Racecourse in Epsom, Surrey.


The 2,000 Guineas, first run on 18 April 1809 was followed by the introduction of a fillies only race called the 1,000 Guineas, both established by the  Jockey Club under the direction of  Sir Charles Bunbury, the co-founder of the Derby at Epsom.  It is currently Britain’s richest and most prestigious horse race, sometimes referred to as the “Blue Riband” of the turf. The race currently serves as the middle leg of the British Triple Crown.The 2,000 Guineas Stakes was first held in 1809, run over 1 mile (1,609 meters) at Newmarket.


The Kentucky Derby– In 1872, Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., grandson of William Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition, traveled to England, visiting the Epsom Derby run since 1780. After returning home to Kentucky, Clark organized the  Louisville Jockey Club for the purpose of raising money to build a racing facility later to be named Churchill Downs after his relatives, John and Henry Churchill, who had provided the land for the racetrack. On May 17, 1875, in front of an estimated crowd of 10,000 people, a field of 15 three-year-old horses contested the first Derby, run at 1½ miles (2.4 km), the same distance as the Epsom Derby. In 1896, “The run for the roses” was changed to its current 1¼ miles (2 km).

Preakness Stakes

In 1873 Maryland Governor Oden Bowie named a new mile and one-half (2.41 km) race in honor of the colt Preakness who won the Dinner Party Stakes on the day Pimlico opened (October 25, 1870). After Preakness won, his jockey, Billy Hayward, untied a silk bag of gold coins that hung from a wire stretched across the track from the judges’ stand, thereby establishing the “wire” at the finish line and the awarding of “purse” money. The race is currently run over 1-3/16 miles (1.91 km) dirt track at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Maryland.

The Belmont Stakes

The Belmont was first held at  Jerome Park in The Bronx but moved twice until the 1905 opening of the new Belmont Park, 430 acres (1.7 km2) racetrack in Belmont, Long Island New York. It is currently run over 1-1/2 miles (2.41 km), the longest dirt track in thoroughbred racing.
Although several horses have come close, it has now been 33 years since a single horse (Affirmed in 1978) has won all three races of the U.S Triple Crown.


(Photo taken by my husband  at the Kentucky Oaks May 2011)
Although the triple crown is largely dominated by male horses, there is also a national Triple Tiara (formerly known as the Filly Triple Crown) in both the US and the UK, Kentucky Oaks, run over 1⅛ miles on a dirt track, at Churchill Downs; THE Black-Eyed Susan Stakes, run over 1⅛ (previously 1-1/16) miles on a dirt track, at Pimlico; The Acorn Stakes, run over 1 mile on a dirt track, at Belmont (previously 1-1/2 miles); Thus far, only one fillyDavona Dale (1979) has won the national Filly Triple Crown.  In Britain there is also a Fillies Triple Crown for a filly winning the 1,000 Guineas, Epsom Oaks, and St Leger Stakes.


Whether historical fiction or historical romance, self-professed Georgian junkie Emery Lee loves nothing more than crafting emotionally compelling stories that bring the past vividly to life. 

Her debut novel THE HIGHEST STAKES, is an epic tale of star-cross lovers set in the high stakes world of 18th century horse racing. In FORTUNE’S SON, Emery spins a web of drama, passion, and deceit, deep in the world of high stakes gaming. She is a member of the Historical Novel Society, Romance Writers of America, RWA , Georgia Romance Writers, and the group moderator for Goodreads Romantic Historical Fiction Lovers.,

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  1. Very informative, Emery! Growing up, my parents were in the harness race horse business (my brother still is). We never missed watching the Derby! ;o) I enjoyed learning how and where it all started. Thanks so much for sharing!

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