A TALE OF TRAGEDY & GLORY

Harper's Bazaar (UK) - - The Season -

Clare Bald­ing ex­plores the story of the Ep­som Derby, in­clud­ing the fate­ful race in which the suf­fragette Emily Dav­i­son made the ul­ti­mate sac­ri­fice

ince it was first run in 1780, the Derby has been the most im­por­tant event in the flat-rac­ing cal­en­dar. By the 19th cen­tury, Par­lia­ment was sus­pended on Derby Day and thou­sands of work­ers were given time off so they could at­tend Ep­som for a day out on the Downs. By the early 20th cen­tury, the race was one of the big­gest sport­ing oc­ca­sions of the year, but on 4 June 1913, it made front-page head­lines around the world – not for the per­for­mance of the win­ner, but for what hap­pened at Tat­ten­ham Cor­ner as the horses turned for home.

The fight for women’s votes was in full swing and the suf­fragettes led the most vo­cif­er­ous and dar­ing protests as they ar­gued to be al­lowed to elect Mem­bers of Par­lia­ment. The Women’s So­cial and Po­lit­i­cal Union (WSPU) was formed in 1903 by Em­me­line Pankhurst, and three years later, a young woman called Emily Wild­ing Dav­i­son joined the party and soon be­came an or­gan­iser of marches. She was a bold and mil­i­tant ac­tivist who was ar­rested on nine oc­ca­sions and went on hunger strike at least seven times as she tried to draw at­ten­tion to the cause.

She had de­cided to at­tend the Derby on her own and po­si­tioned her­self at Tat­ten­ham Cor­ner. I have watched the footage of what hap­pened in slow mo­tion, analysing her ac­tions frame by frame, and I am still as­tounded by it. As the run­ners came round the fa­mous bend, gal­lop­ing at about 30 miles an hour down­hill as they quick­ened for home, Dav­i­son ducked un­der the rail into the mid­dle of the field. The first few horses avoided her but then there was a gap and towards the back of the pack, slightly de­tached from the other run­ners, was King Ge­orge V’s horse An­mer. Dav­i­son is clearly seen rais­ing her arms towards the horse’s bri­dle.

In one way, it was pure luck that Dav­i­son man­aged to tar­get the King’s horse (they were gal­lop­ing so fast, that it would be al­most im­pos­si­ble to pick out any one run­ner, even for some­one who knew rac­ing in­side out) but, of course, it was des­per­ately un­lucky that the horse in ques­tion tried to avoid her by rais­ing his front feet to jump over her. Watch­ing the footage closely, it is clear that An­mer un­wit­tingly strikes Emily in the chest and flips her over, caus­ing her to som­er­sault and land so heav­ily that she would die a few days later from her in­juries.

For many years, it was as­sumed that Dav­i­son was at­tempt­ing to pull down the King’s horse, but the pic­tures show her car­ry­ing some­thing that may have been a suf­fragette scarf or flag. I sus­pect she was try­ing to throw it over An­mer’s neck in the hope that the King’s horse would gal­lop past the packed stands with the sig­na­ture stan­dard of the WSPU fly­ing from him. The sym­bol­ism of sup­posed royal ap­proval would have suited Dav­i­son’s aims per­fectly.

As it was, her death turned her into a mar­tyr for the cause and more than 5,000 women marched with her cof­fin as it was taken to Lon­don and put on a train to New­cas­tle. She was buried in her fam­ily’s plot in Mor­peth and on her tomb the in­scrip­tion of ‘Deeds not Words’ pays trib­ute to the fact that she was pre­pared to die for her beliefs.

World War I caused a hia­tus in the cam­paign for women’s suf­frage but in 1918, women over the age of 30 who had cer­tain prop­erty rights were granted the vote. One hun­dred years on, it seems re­mark­able and dis­ap­point­ing that we are still fight­ing for equal­ity, but I be­lieve that things are chang­ing for the bet­ter, and I am par­tic­u­larly en­cour­aged that women in sport are gain­ing re­spect and a higher pro­file.

Mean­while, the In­vestec Derby is still a ma­jor sport­ing event, wel­com­ing peo­ple of all ages and back­grounds. You can dress up to the nines and drink cham­pagne, or turn up in shorts and a T-shirt and en­joy the fun of the fair­ground in the mid­dle of the course. The de­voted pres­ence of Her Majesty the Queen proves that the seal of royal ap­proval adds lus­tre and dig­nity.

The Derby has al­ways meant a huge amount to me and my fam­ily, be­cause my fa­ther trained Mill Reef to win the race in 1971, the year I was born. If any­one asks my fa­ther, ‘What hap­pened in 1971?’ he will say: ‘Mill Reef won the Derby.’ I know my po­si­tion in the peck­ing or­der of his pri­or­i­ties! My great hope is that one day soon, a fe­male jockey will ride the win­ner of the In­vestec Derby, thereby pay­ing homage to Emily Dav­i­son’s sac­ri­fice.

Above all, we should cel­e­brate the work of women who have come be­fore us and I salute the ac­com­plish­ments of those who have ded­i­cated them­selves to a cause. Words are im­por­tant, but deeds are even bet­ter. The In­vestec Derby Fes­ti­val (www.ep­som derby.co.uk) runs on 1 and 2 June.

Charles Ernest Cun­dall’s ‘Derby Day’

Above: Mill Reef, the 1971 Derby win­ner trained by Clare Bald­ing’s fa­ther, Ian

Right: Emily Dav­i­son. Below: John Lav­ery’s ‘The Derby’

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