Is it true that the Derby was originally run over a mile?

The simple answer is yes, it is. The Derby Stakes was co-founded, as a sweepstakes race for three-year-old colts and fillies, by Edward Smith-Stanley, Twelfth Earl of Derby, and Sir Charles Bunbury, Chairman of the Jockey Club, in 1780. The official ‘Racing Calendar’ stated that, on May 4 that year, the inaugural Derby Stakes was run ‘over the last mile of the course’ at Epsom.

Until fairly recently, it was widely believed that the ‘last mile’ referred to a straight mile, extending beyond the current 5-furlong start on a chute coming off Tattenham Corner at the top of the home straight. However, according to official Derby historian Michael Church, the ‘last mile’ actually referred to the last mile of the so-called ‘Orbicular Course’, onto which the Derby was transferred when it was extended from mile to a mile and a half in 1784. Thus, the sweeping, downhill turn into Tattenham Corner did not become a feature of the Derby until four years after the inaugural running. Indeed, it was close to the position of the mile marker on the old Orbicular Course that Jockey Club Racecourses, which owns Epsom Downs, erected a plaque to commemorate the starting point of the inaugural Derby.