Twelve months from now we shall be marking the centenary of the most sensational Derby ever run – the race in which suffragette Emily Davison received fatal injuries, the winner was disqualified and the third-place prize was given to the wrong horse.

But there is also a significant Derby anniversary to recall this month, as it was 50 years ago that seven of the 26 runners failed to complete the course. We can explode some of the myths that have grown up about the 1913 race – refuting the notion that Miss Davison threw herself in front of the King’s horse, providing the real reason why Craganour’s number was taken down, which had nothing to do with the alleged bumping and boring, maybe even explaining why the judge got in such a tizz – but exactly what occurred in the debacle of 1962 remains something of a mystery.

After 1962 had provided the coldest May that many could remember, June ushered in brighter weather and all four days of the Epsom meeting were blessed with warm sunshine. Although the ground was firm, the jockeys reported that there was no jar in it. The prospect of a pleasant afternoon in the sun and a big field for the Classic with open betting ensured that the course played host to the largest crowd for several years. Just a tiny minority witnessed the disaster and, because it happened so quickly, no-one was able to provide a reliable account.

“It was hard to focus on the race when it was clear that an unseen disaster had occurred on the hill”

The Derby being what it is, and always was, the field included plenty who had no pretensions to winning the prize. But just to have a runner in the race would satisfy the ambition of many owners and the nine whose colours were carried by colts dismissed at 100-1 could always cite the old proverb about “nothing ventured…” and point out that 100-1 chances had won the race before.

The colts in the crop foaled in 1959 had not distinguished themselves as two-year-olds. The two best juveniles were fillies La Tendresse and Display, the former rated fully 6lb clear of the leading colt, Timeform Gold Cup hero Miralgo. A son of Aureole, he at least could be more or less guaranteed to stay middle distances at three, something that could not be said of the four colts ranked immediately below him, who were all the products of speedy sires – Escort (by Palestine), Gustav and Sovereign Lord (both by Grey Sovereign), and Prince Poppa (by Princely Gift). Winter betting on the Derby chiefly featured Miralgo and Escort, the latter representing some wishful thinking that he might have acquired some stamina from broodmare sire Chanteur.

The 2,000 Guineas provided no worthwhile clues for Epsom, Miralgo fell from grace with defeats in both the Chester Vase and Lingfield Derby Trial, and among the few to advance their claims were the Ballydoyle pair Sebring and Larkspur, each successful in his prep race in Ireland, and Hethersett, who had only River Chanter and Heron to beat in the Brighton Derby Trial but accomplished the task easily.

As there had been no more than 1lb between the trio at two, it appeared that Hethersett had improved significantly, so he was promptly installed as the market leader, a position he held until Derby day itself, when he went off at 9-2, while Miralgo and Le Cantilien – both at 8-1 – were the only others at single-digit odds.

The field was already under orders when Prince d’Amour received a hefty kick on the stifle from a neighbour. He then had to be trotted around a few times to prove that he was still fit to start, a hiatus that might have caused problems for some of the more highly-strung individuals, but all seemed to cope well enough, and once Prince d’Amour was given the all-clear to take part the runners were despatched on pretty much even terms.

Calm before the storm
There was no hint of the drama to come as the tubed Romancero, just a maiden winner at Lingfield, stretched out clear on the uphill section, and he continued to show several lengths in front of Valentine at halfway, with River Chanter and Silver Cloud next. Miralgo, Sebring, Escort and Ribobo (one of those 100-1 shots) were also prominent as they began their descent towards Tattenham Corner.

For the vast majority of watchers in the stands, all that was visible in that area of the course was the densely-packed crowd on the downs, enjoying a day in the sunshine.

A few, hard by the rails halfway down the hill, may well have seen it all – the first bad step, and the chain reaction that followed, taking over a quarter of the field out of the race – but the sudden, instant confusion left it just a blur. Some of those with high-powered binoculars at the very top of the grandstand glimpsed a part of it, a couple of eagle-eyed pressmen calling out: “The favourite’s down!” Most observers had no idea what had happened until the runners were in the straight, when one was clearly riderless and there seemed to be rather fewer than had set off on their journey a couple of minutes earlier.

Then other loose horses began to appear and the scale of the mayhem became apparent. It was hard to focus on what was happening in the race when it was clear that an unseen disaster, perhaps even a tragedy, had occurred on the hill.

In fact there were three, if not four, different leaders in the straight. Valentine led around the turn, soon gave way to River Chanter, and then Sebring may just have got his head in front before his stable companion Larkspur passed him and opened a clear lead. Le Cantilien threw down a challenge that never really looked like succeeding and fellow French raider Arcor eventually came through to snatch second close home.

Larkspur was not welcomed to the winner’s enclosure with the customary raucous reception for a Derby hero. All thoughts were on what had happened out of sight; the ignorance of that preyed on minds.

Of course, in the 21st century there would be ways of ascertaining exactly what had happened. Not in 1962. The patrol camera was a recent innovation but it did not cover all areas of the course. Similarly, TV and newsreel folk had decided that cameras were better positioned elsewhere. There had to be a stewards’ enquiry, but what could be determined at that?

One jockey, Bobby Elliott (rider of Pindaric), was able to walk back to the weighing room; the riders of the other six who had parted company – somehow – with their mounts, were promptly removed to hospital. Who knew what had happened? The short answer was: nobody.

The stewards decided, understandably, that they could not apportion any blame. They could only assume that the problem was caused by bunching resulting from the worst contenders suddenly reaching the end of their tether, stopping or slowing abruptly.

Check out the form book now and you will find that seven horses fell. That’s as many as fell in that year’s Grand National. But at Aintree there were observers who could separate the fallers from those brought down. That was not the case at Epsom. Strictly speaking, the Epsom seven were not all fallers, but nobody could be definite about who had fallen and who had been made to fall.

The best guess seemed to be that Romulus had clipped heels with Crossen, then cannoned into Hethersett, all three jockeys parting company with their mounts on account of the impact. Four following contenders could not avoid the melee and their riders also hit the deck. But none of that could be taken as gospel.

Racehorses of 1962 said that there had never been a more unsatisfactory Derby; the Bloodstock Breeders’ Review of that year reported that it had been the most dramatic Derby in its long history.

Both judgements indicated that their authors remained ignorant of what made the 1913 renewal so much more sensational.