Well, it would be an odd sporting event which had not undergone some sort of metamorphosis in a hundred years. But the Derby has survived better than many. The race itself is unchanged; still a mile and a half contest for three-year-old colts and fillies on the same course, apart from an easing of Tattenham Corner, over which Diamond Jubilee strode to victory in 1900.
And it still fulfils the same function, setting the middle-distance standard for the season. At the turn of the century the top horses tended to warm up in the Guineas, go on to Epsom and defend their honour in the St Leger. Nowadays the expansion of the programme at home and abroad has meant more opportunity, competition, and specialisation. But the Derby is still the shake-down for the three-year-old generation, identifying ability more often than confirming it.
Though they face an increasingly difficult task, the best winners will still beat all comers. The middling ones will win some, lose some, and the bad ones will sink without trace, as it has ever been. Time was when the Derby winner often did prove the best of his generation, but that owed much to the season's structure.
The Derby is still the race that most owners and the sport's professionals want to win. Its slump in public perception is only a reflection of that of racing, now a minority sport, itself. But its cause is not helped by the addition of a sponsor's name; the Derby's identity should not be downgraded by any sort of qualification. It is a unique test on a unique track, a unique race.
And perhaps not as much has changed as people believe. Between 1900 and 1908, the number of races contested by the winners as three-year-olds before they went to Epsom was 15. From 1990 to 1998, the figure was 14. In the first nine years of the century the Derby winners ran a total of 52 times at three. Quest For Fame and his eight immediate successors ran 47 times. In both decades fillies - Sceptre (1902) and Cape Verdi (1998) - started favourite and were beaten. Spearmint (1906) and Lammtarra (1995) won on their seasonal debuts and finished the season unbeaten champions.
The last Derby of the century promises to be as fascinating and exciting as any. There may be, just may be, an outstanding horse. But the Derby is a beginning, not an end, and that is part of its magic.
THE BEST DERBY WINNER
Sea-Bird, 1965: Even allowing for the traps of time and memory, Sea-Bird was awesome. He won his Derby cantering on the bit, with ears pricked. It was not only what he did, but the way he did it. The French colt was top-class at two, and at three nothing was even able to extend him. The climax of his magnificent career came in the Arc, when he left the best in Europe and America floundering six lengths in his wake. Ard Patrick, Gay Crusader, Hyperion, Windsor Lad, Bahram, Blue Peter, Pinza, Crepello, Nijinsky, Mill Reef, Shergar, Nashwan, great horses. But Sea- Bird flew highest.
Felstead, 1928: Durbar, Signorinetta, Spion Kop, Mid-Day Sun, Pont L'Eveque, Lavandin, Psidium and Morston are all in this, but Felstead gets the vote because whereas the others won their Derbies on the day fair and square, he did not. Fairway, a brilliant horse, lost it on the walk to the start. He was mobbed by cheering supporters, many of whom even plucked hairs from his tail as souvenirs. With the favourite reduced to a sweat-soaked jelly Felstead, 33-1, benefited from a superb Harry Wragg ride to beat the equally badly-ridden second favourite Flamingo, and never ran again.
Larkspur, 1962: It is normally only in steeplechases that winners are considered lucky when more than a quarter of the field fall. Seven horses came down on the descent to Tattenham Corner six furlongs from home and hampered half-a-dozen more; there were only nine fallers in that year's Grand National. The Epsom victims, of whom King Canute fell fatally, included the favourite Hethersett. Larkspur dodged the mayhem to become Vincent O'Brien's first Derby winner. But when Hethersett trounced him in the St Leger it seemed fortune had smiled on him at Epsom.
THE BEST LOSER
Bayardo,1909: Minoru, owned by King Edward VII, was the winner, but had Bayardo been at his best there would have been no question of a Royal victory. Unbeaten in seven races at two, Bayardo's delicate feet gave trainer Alec Taylor problems in a cold, hard-ground spring and he did not begin to thrive until just before the Derby. His progress was too late for Epsom - he came fifth - but he won his remaining 11 races at three - including the Prince of Wales and Eclipse Stakes and St Leger - and four out of five at four. Dancing Brave, the other great loser, could not have done that.
THE BRAVEST WINNER
Humorist,1921: Eighteen days after Humorist outbattled Craig An Eran by a neck after a dour struggle up the straight he was dead. Unbeknown to anyone - although in retrospect it explained some vicissitudes in his health and form - Jack Joel's colt suffered from pulmonary tuberculosis and his courageous effort in effect killed him. A few hours after Sir Alfred Munnings had made some sketches of him, a stable lad spotted blood trickling from under his stable door. The gentle chestnut had had a massive internal haemorrhage and bled to death alone in his box.
THE MOST ROMANTIC WINNER
Signorinetta, 1908: Barbara Cartland could not have made it up. Signorina, owned, trained and adored by a Newmarket-based Italian, Odoardo Ginistrelli, was a high-class runner but a problem as a broodmare. After many foal-less years Ginistrelli noticed that his darling always whinnied to an unfashionable stallion called Chaleureux. He arranged their union, based on "the boundless laws of sympathy and love", and the result was Signorinetta. The mousey little bay took the Derby at 100-1 and the Oaks two days later, the hot favourite having fallen. She never won again.
THE MOST DRAMATIC DERBY
Aboyeur, 1913: This was the Derby that had everything: death, politics, royalty, sex, violence, disqualification, incompetence and even the Titanic. On Tattenham Hill the suffragette demonstrator, Emily Davison, dashed on to the course, brought down the King's runner Anmer, and died four days later of her injuries. In a desperate, rough finish in which the first eight horses home were covered by a distance of just three lengths, Craganour was judged to have inched out Aboyeur and Louvois. The first two had been scrimmaging all the way up the straight and after an objection, Craganour, who was the 6-4 favourite, was disqualified in favour of the 100-1 outsider Aboyeur. There just may have been a touch of ill-feeling at the inquiry; Craganour's owner, Bower Ismay (the brother of the White Star Line chairman who incurred some public opproprium by surviving the Titanic disaster) was loathed by the Epsom chief steward Eustace Loder, because of a family affaire. And one of the riders giving evidence, Bill Saxby on Louvois, had been jocked-off Craganour in favour of the French- based American jockey Johnny Reiff, who was much resented by the English riders. Finally, the judge failed to spot that Day Comet was involved in the finish and the horse who quite clearly finished third (at worst) was assigned no official place, a mistake which was never rectified.