1921 Epsom Derby (lost radio coverage of horse racing event; 1921)

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Status: Lost

The 1921 Epsom Derby was a horse racing event which occurred on 1st June 1921. The race was won by Humorist with Steve Donoghue as his jockey, a neck ahead of second-placed Craig An Eran. The win was especially remarkable as Humorist passed away fewer than three weeks later from a lung haemorrhage triggered by chronic tuberculosis. The race is historic for being the first sporting event to receive live radio coverage in Britain.


The Epsom Derby has been held since 1780 and is considered the biggest flat horse race of its kind in the United Kingdom, forming one of the five British Classics Races.[1][2] Heading into the 1921 edition, Humorist, a British Thoroughbred chestnut colt, was one of the favourites alongside Leighton and Craig An Eran.[3][4] He had previously won the Woodcote Stakes by a neck, and was the favourite heading into the 1921 Classic 2000 Guineas.[5][6][4] However, he began to tire in that race, finishing third behind Crag an Eran and Lemonora.[5][6][4] It was not discovered until later that Humorist was suffering from chronic tuberculosis, which had degenerated one lung and severely damaged the other.[6][4] Despite concerns over Humorist's condition and confidence, with him being extremely underweight, jockey Steve Donoghue insisted Humorist was no quitter and he could win the Derby.[6][4] Donoghue had previously won the Derby twice, achieving glory with Pommern in 1915, and Gay Crusader in 1917.[7][6] To ensure Humorist was in the best shape possible for the race, a lighter training schedule and extra food rations were deemed necessary.[6] Donoghue felt this regime had worked heading into the race.[6]

Meanwhile, Marconi was conducting various radio experiments within the United Kingdom.[8][9][10] During this period, Marconi decided to provide coverage of the upcoming Epsom Derby, which also was likely its first outside broadcast.[8] To achieve the broadcast, its equipment was housed in a large van at the track, with the race results transmitted by a Marconi wireless telephone set to a rather minute audience.[8] It was not the only Marconi technology at work on the day; the Metropolitan Police built a receiving station at New Scotland Yard, and captured radio-provided traffic information via an airship, which was transmitted by a Marconi wireless car.[11][12] The experiment proved a success, enabling the police to properly regulate the shear extent of traffic that had arrived to see the Derby.[11][12]

The Race

The race itself occurred on 1st June 1921.[3][6] After two false starts caused by Le Traquet breaking the tape prematurely, the race officially began twenty minutes late with Alan Breck taking the lead.[13][12] Half a mile into the race, Alan Breck led ahead of The Bohemian, Humorist, and favourite Leighton.[12][13] However, Leighton would ultimately disappoint in this race, the speed horse tiring a quarter of a mile before the race end and lagging behind to finish fifth.[12][6][3] According to Evening Post, some insiders felt Leighton was overweight and needed another two weeks of extensive training to be fit for the Derby.[12] Alan Breck also fell back, allowing Donoghue to gamble on an opening that could only arise had Breck conformed to his typical racing pattern.[6][12][13] The gamble worked, and the race became a duel between Humorist and the fast-charging Craig an Eran, resulting in what was described as a "battle royal" between the two horses by the Evening Post.[13][12][6] But Craig an Eran's comeback following a slow start was in vain, as Donoghue was seemingly assured of Humorist's pace, never really needing to hit the colt nor perform other violent actions to increase his speed in the last 300 yards.[12][6] Humorist ultimately won by a neck ahead of Craig an Eran, with Lemonora three lengths behind in third, Alan Breck fourth, and Leighton fifth.[3][12][13][7][6] Humorist appeared anxious and unsteady following the race, forcing him to stay longer at the stables before he was transferred back home.[4][6]

For this win, Donoghue earned a prize pot of £6,450, about £300,000 in today's money.[3] One commentator did praise Humorist for his competitiveness, but remarked that the 1921 Derby would not be deemed one of the greatest in the race's history, especially as Humorist was neither a dominant favourite nor a surprise outsider.[12] Nevertheless, Humorist's win would be deemed all the more remarkable, as the horse passed away fewer than three weeks later.[14][6][4] It was found he suffered long-term chronic tuberculosis, severely compromising his lungs heading into the race and eventually triggering a severe lung haemorrhage.[6][4][14] In paying tribute to Humorist, Donoghue stated "He gave me everything he had when it must have been agony for him. No horse ever showed greater courage."[6][4] Donoghue would later win the next two Derbies with Captain Cuttle and Papyrus respectively, and in 1925 with Manna.[7]

Meanwhile, Marconi expanded with the creation of 2MT and 2LO, the latter providing live radio coverage of the Georges Carpentier-Ted "Kid" Lewis boxing match on 11th May 1922.[8][10][9] Further live sports coverage was thwarted following print media resistance, which also prevented the 1925 Epsom Derby from being broadcast.[8][10] Nevertheless, the BBC, who acquired 2MI and 2LO later in 1922, took over and after becoming a Royal Chapter public corporation, started providing live coverage starting with the England-Wales rugby match on 15th January 1927.[8][10] The BBC also covered the 1927 Derby on 1st June 1927.[15] Four years later, it worked with the Baird Television Company to televise the Derby for the first time.[15]


Ultimately, none of the radio coverage for this race has survived, as recordings were very much non-existent during this time period..[16][17][18][19] Outside sports broadcasts were especially prone to not being recorded, as the impracticality of earlier recording devices like acetate or lacquer discs thwarted most attempts.[16] Ultimately, no known authenticated recordings between 1920-1922 exist, with the earliest officially confirmed according to the National Archives being Woodrow Wilson's Armistice Day Speech in 1923 as the first surviving regular airing.[18][19][17] Thus, the coverage of the 1921 Epsom Derby is most likely permanently missing.[17]

See Also


  1. Keith Prowse detailing the Epsom Derby. Retrieved 21st Dec '22
  2. Britannica's definition of the Classics. Retrieved 21st Dec '22
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 Greyhound Derby detailing the results and betting statistics of the 1921 Epsom Derby. Retrieved 21st Dec '22
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 4.7 4.8 Zoe Louise Smith X detailing the life and career of Humorist. Retrieved 21st Dec '22
  5. 5.0 5.1 Evening Post reporting on Humorist finishing third in the 1921 Classic 2000 Guineas, despite being declared the favourite. Retrieved 21st Dec '22
  6. 6.00 6.01 6.02 6.03 6.04 6.05 6.06 6.07 6.08 6.09 6.10 6.11 6.12 6.13 6.14 6.15 6.16 Sports Illustrated's detailed account of Humorist, including his races at the Classic 2000 Guineas and Derby. Retrieved 21st Dec '22
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Britannica listing the results of every Epsom Derby. Retrieved 21st Dec '22
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 8.5 International Radio Journal detailing the radio coverage of the 1921 Derby, the failed attempt to cover the 1925 race, and the BBC's later broadcasts. Retrieved 21st Dec '22
  9. 9.0 9.1 Marconi detailing the experiments the company made in 1921 and 1922, including the Carpentier-Lewis match. Retrieved 21st Dec '22
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 Encyclopedia of Radio noting the 1921 Epsom Derby received radio coverage and noting other early British sports broadcasts. Retrieved 21st Dec '22
  11. 11.0 11.1 Radio History detailing the Metropolitan Police's use of an airship to gain traffic information via radio. Retrieved 21st Dec '22
  12. 12.00 12.01 12.02 12.03 12.04 12.05 12.06 12.07 12.08 12.09 12.10 27th July 1921 issue of Evening Post providing a detailed race report. Retrieved 21st Dec '22
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3 13.4 2nd June 1921 issue of Evening Post summarising the race. Retrieved 21st Dec '22
  14. 14.0 14.1 17th August 1921 issue of Evening Post reporting on the death of Humorist. Retrieved 21st Dec '22
  15. 15.0 15.1 RacingQuestions noting the BBC's coverage of the 1927 Epsom Derby and its televising of the 1931 edition. Retrieved 21st Dec '22
  16. 16.0 16.1 Ngā Taonga noting most early-1920s airings were never recorded. Retrieved 21st Dec '22
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 Old-Time detailing the oldest surviving radio broadcasts and noting no authenticated examples exist between 1920-1922. Retrieved 21st Dec '22
  18. 18.0 18.1 Benjamin S. Beck detailing various examples claiming to be the earliest surviving radio broadcast. Retrieved 21st Dec '22
  19. 19.0 19.1 National Archives stating the oldest surviving radio broadcast is Woodrow Wilson's Armistice Day Speech from 1923. Retrieved 21st Dec '22