Epsom is the most famous racecourse in England, in part because it is the venue for the Derby, the prime event in the racing calendar. The premier test of speed and stamina, it is one of the five Classic English races. The other important races that are run there are the Oaks, a Classic race for fillies, the Coronation Cup for four year olds (first run in 1902), the two mile furlong Great Metropolitan, and the City and Suburban Handicap (first run in 1851).
The first recorded race meeting at Epsom took place in 1661, with King Charles II in attendance. Throughout the 18th Century the number of races increased, largely as an entertainment for those taking the waters at the Epsom spa. However, it wasn't until 1828 that a permanent stand was erected: this was then rebuilt in 1927.
At the height of its popularity in the 19th Century, the Derby drew huge crowds whose carnival atmosphere was famously recorded by William Powell Frith in his 1858 Royal Academy exhibit entitled 'Derby Day'. As so many members of the House of Lords were owners and attended the race, Parliament rose for the day, and a national holiday was declared. As many as a million people converged, by railway, on Epsom Downs. The race, which is run on the first weekend in June, has retained its appeal today.
Curiously, despite Munnings' enthusiasm for racing, he never depicted a race in progress. For him, the excitement, pageantry, pent-up energy and drama before the race, or the winding down process after, inspired him much more, because he could let his creativity take over. The moments after the races at Epsom during which horses were unsaddled so fired his genius that he frequently returned to the theme.
In the present picture, Munnings has depicted a horse, his own bred mare, Winter Rose, in the winner's enclosure, being unsaddled after her race. A groom holds the horse while the jockey, in Stanley Wooton's colours, uncinches the girth. Because the the girth is momentarily tightened to loosen the buckle, the horse, with ears slightly back, is seen taking a step to the side and moving away from the jockey, a typical response to being unsaddled. Winter Rose's nostrils are flaring from exertion and she mouths the bit, as evidenced by her slightly open mouth. It is the acute observance of these nuances of equine behaviour that substantiates Munnings as the consummate equine portraitist. He misses nothing.
Also included in the scene is the trainer, wearing a bowler hat, and holding a rug. The presumed owner walks proudly down the steps. Relaxed punters, probably those who failed to bet on this winner, lean over the rail observing the activity below.
As in other versions in the series, Winter Rose acts as the principal subject. The Santa Anita Collection's Winner at Epsom, formerly at the Los Angeles Turf Club, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1955 (no. 167), is slightly smaller and measures 38 x 47 in. This version sold at Sotheby's, New York, on 1 December 1998, lot 1 ($1,700,000). The Munnings Museum has ten smaller versions that Munnings retained for his own collection.
Munnings remembered the execution of this scene in his memoirs:
'There is no saddling paddock like the one at Epsom...For years and years, my next hurried move has always been to the grass Ring with the the white rail, where the winner is led in. The surrounding pebbled enclosure is quickly crowded - everyone waiting to see the Derby winner. For a few moments this one particular animal occupies the thoughts of all who are waiting there. Such a race and finish has the had the same effect of every looker-on. Nothing else in the world matters for the time being to those discussing it'. (Sir Alfred J Munnings, The Finish, Bungay, 1952, pp. 220-3).
At the time of the 1960 sale, the photograph in the catalogue was cropped just above the level of the signature (and indeed on other sides), leading to some confusion over the authenticity of the signature. Recent technical analysis has, however, clearly established that the signature is original.
The picture will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné by Sir Alfred Munnings being prepared by Lorian Peralta-Ramos to whom we are grateful for providing this catalogue entry.