05/21/2004 12:00AM

Thankfully it's the Derby, not Bunbury


NEW YORK - No sport more closely mirrors society at large than horse racing. Study the history of the Thoroughbred in any country, and you will be given a glimpse into the history of that country's politics and culture through the peculiar prism that is racing.

This simultaneity is most evident in England, where the Epsom Derby, or the Derby Stakes as it is officially known, has reflected the rise and fall of Britain's fortunes on and off the racecourse since 1780.

Present at its conception on the evening of the first running of the Oaks on May 14, 1779, were figures from Britain's political, military, and cultural elite. Lord Derby, after whom the race was named, and Lord Bunbury, after whom the race was thankfully not named, represented the political spectrum. General John Burgoyne, fresh from a devastating defeat to those pesky American colonists in the Battle of Saratoga, was there putting on a brave face for the lads in the red coats. And playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, author of "The Rivals," chimed in with his artistic two cents.

The British were attempting to reinvent the world in their own image in the late 18th century, and racing played a key role in their agenda, both at home and abroad. Wherever they set up camp, be it in North America, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, or India, racing blossomed. But no single event captured the imagination of Britons at home or abroad more than the Derby.

The Blue Riband of the Turf soon established itself as the standard by which all Thoroughbreds would be measured, in much the same way as the 19th century English gentleman was expected to set the standard in all matters social and political. There is a reason why Englishmen still affect Edwardian fancy dress on Derby Day and at Royal Ascot. It is to commemorate the glory days of the British Empire, a period when the English gentleman and the British Thoroughbred reigned supreme throughout the world.

Ironically, that world was becoming a smaller place in large part due to the ingenuity of the British themselves. The Industrial Revolution made possible the introduction of a national railway network in the 1840's, and so made Derby Day an outing not simply for the landed gentry, but for anyone who could afford a third-class ticket from Dickensian London. Seventeen miles south of the capital, Epsom was suddenly within shouting range of the teeming masses.

In racing terms, even greater changes were in store. The superiority of the British Thoroughbred was being challenged, most notably when Gladiateur, the French-bred, French-owned "Avenger of Waterloo," changed the face of the game forever in 1865. The first non-British Thoroughbred to win Britain's greatest prize, his victory marked a turning point in the history of racing.

Iroquois, American-bred (by Aristides Welch), American-owned (by Pierre Lorillard), and American-trained (by Jacob Pincus, albeit in England), took the 1881 Derby. His victory coincides with the beginning of the decline of the British aristocracy, and of the British Empire, and might be seen as a harbinger of the American century.

Further incursion on Britain's racing hegemony was made when the Irish-bred Orby won the 1907 Derby. "Thank God a Catholic horse has finally won the Derby!" exclaimed one wag as Orby was led into the winner's circle. His victory preceded by 11 years the Easter Rebellion that would ultimately free most of Ireland from British colonial rule.

The British aristocracy would produce not one, but three last hurrahs. The Prince of Wales, son of the long-lived Queen Victoria, had Derby winners with Persimmon in 1896 and Diamond Jubilee in 1900. Having ascended the throne as Edward VII in 1901, he won the 1909 Derby with Minoru.

At that stage, racing in England was becoming enmeshed with international politics. At the 1913 Derby, women's voting rights activist Emily Davison invaded the course at Tattenham Corner and brought down King George V's horse, Anmer. She died as a result of her injuries in a race that became known as the Suffragette Derby. Women older than 30 got to vote in Britain in 1918.

World War I necessitated the removal of the Derby from Epsom to Newmarket, where it was known as the New Derby. Meanwhile, Minoru, of whom Edward VII had made a gift to the Russian breeding industry in honor of his second cousin Czar Alexander III, was discovered pulling a cart in Moscow in 1920, a beneficiary of the Communist regime's new labor laws.

The post-World War II period saw a British decline both economically and racing-wise with the United States rising to the fore. But the 1970's heralded a sea of change in Britain's racing fortunes as Europeans and Arabs led a raid on American bloodstock. Ten of the 17 Derby winners between 1970 and 1986 were bred in North America. More recently, British owners have lost their grip on the Derby. No Englishman has been the sole proprietor of a Derby winner since Reference Point carried Louis Freedman's colors to victory in 1987, a situation that might be likened to a form of outsourcing on the part of non-British owners.

On June 5 at Epsom they will hold the 225th running of the Derby Stakes. In today's commercial world, the race is sponsored by Vodafone, the telecommunications company that has helped increase the Derby's value to $2.2 million, making it the world's second-richest race for 3-year-olds after the Japanese Derby. The sun has long since set on the British Empire, but its crown sporting jewel soldiers on.