Kentucky Derby History
Known in the United States as “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports” or “The Fastest Two Minutes in Sports” for its approximate duration, the Kentucky Derby is an annual Grade 1 stakes horse race held on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky.
Considered by many to be the biggest horse event in the world, the race is for three-year-old Thoroughbreds and ran at a distance of one and a quarter miles. Also called “The Run for the Roses” for the garland of roses draped over the winning horse, the Kentucky Derby is the first leg of the prestigious American Triple Crown racing series.
Many Americans can name several past Derby winners, but few people know the origins of the race itself. Read on to discover the history of the Kentucky Derby and exactly how the famous horse race got its start.
Derby Founder: Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark
In the late 1800s, Louisville native Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. — grandson of William Clark of the famed Lewis and Clark Expedition — became interested in the sport of horse racing while on a trip to England. According to the official Kentucky Derby website, Colonel Clark attended a famous English horse race known as the Epsom Derby and spent considerable time with members of The French Jockey Club.
After witnessing the popularity of horse racing in England, Colonel Clark was inspired to start something just as big and exciting in America. So, upon his return to Louisville, he set out to found the Louisville Jockey Club, build Churchill Downs and start the Kentucky Derby. To finance his dream, Clark sought assistance from his uncles John and Henry Churchill. The uncles agreed to help by leasing their nephew land and, in 1875, Churchill Downs was officially opened for business.
History.com’s Sarah Pruitt tells the somber story of Clark’s subsequent alienation from his family and Churchill Downs. Colonel Clark was an arrogant man who had a hard time controlling his temper. As a result, he made many enemies and embarrassed his family, including the uncles who had leased him the land. After John Churchill’s death, Clark was disinherited and left as a common worker at the track he had started. Sadly, he committed suicide at the age of only 53, just a few short weeks before the 25th running of the Kentucky Derby.
Building Churchill Downs
Colonel Clark’s dream for a high-class sporting event was well-executed. According to the Churchill Downs official web site, horse racing in Kentucky has a long history going back to at least 1789. So, by the time Clark became involved with the sport in the 1870s, he found broad local interest and easily obtainable funding to establish the track and support its growth.
After acquiring the 80 acres of land from his Churchill uncles, Clark organized the local Louisville Jockey Club, which greatly helped to galvanize the track’s development. The group quickly collected subscriptions and raised $32,000 to build the track, stables, grandstands and clubhouse, all within a short period of time.
Somewhat surprisingly, the Kentucky Derby was among the very first races ever ran at Churchill Downs. Opening Day was May 17, 1875, and Colonel Clark had organized three major races for the day. These three major stakes races were the Derby, Kentucky Oaks and the Clark Handicap. Colonel Clark modeled these races after three premiere English racing events, hoping to attract a high-brow audience.
From the very start, Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby drew huge crowds. Opening Day was witnessed by more than 10,000 spectators. And, Colonel Clark, according to the Kentucky Derby website, used wealthy men and women to tempt a fashionable set to the track.
The First Winners
A horse by the name of Aristides made Kentucky Derby history by becoming the first winner of the event. The race was 1.5 miles at the time, but has been shortened to 1.25 miles today due to concerns the distance was too strenuous on the Thoroughbreds. A total of 15 horses ran the very first Kentucky Derby in 1875, whereas modern Derby fields have 21 entrants. The winner received a purse of $2,850. The second-place finisher received $200.
Riding Aristides to victory at the first Kentucky Derby was jockey Oliver Lewis. Lewis was a young, 19-year-old black man, one of 13 total African American jockeys in the inaugural event.
Kentucky Derby history tells a complicated mix of racial diversity. According to Christopher Klein, African Americans account for more than half of the first 28 victories of the race. However, racist policies were then enacted that prevented black jockeys from getting licensed. This led to a trend of mostly white jockeys for an extended period of years and a low rate of African American jockeys participating in the sport. Derby enthusiasts say the race is racially diverse today, however, pointing to a recent prevalence of Latino jockeys.
Triple Crown Status
Colonel Clark tried promoting his Kentucky Derby as part of a “Triple Crown” series of Thoroughbred racing in the United States. He hoped to immediately associate the Derby with already popular horse racing events – the Belmont Stakes, established in the Bronx, New York in 1867 and the Preakness Stakes, established in Baltimore, Maryland in 1873. Although many people today consider the Derby to be the most prestigious of the three races, this was not the case early on. The Derby was not widely accepted as an equal until the early 1900s and the Triple Crown term did not catch on until the 1930s.
Winning all three Triple Crown races in the same year is considered the greatest achievement in Thoroughbred racing. But, it is no easy feat to accomplish. Only 12 horses have won all three Triple Crown events, with American Pharaoh the most recent in 2015. Secretariat, arguably the greatest horse of all time, won all three races in 1973 and set the still-standing Kentucky Derby record with a time of 1:59 2/5.
Run for the Roses
In 1925 Bill Corum, a sports writer in New York, coined the race’s nickname, “Run for the Roses.” Corum based the name off the garland of roses that the winner receives around his or her neck in the winner’s circle.
Roses have long been associated with Kentucky Derby history. The Derby’s first garland appeared in 1896 and in some form has been linked to the race ever since. The current garland arrangement that graces the winner today was first presented in 1932.
There is a long-running tradition of celebrity sightings at the Derby. For example, British royalty have attended the race four times, as noted here by the Kentucky Derby’s website. Similarly, seven United States Presidents have also graced the Derby with their presence.
Mint Juleps have been the long-running alcoholic beverage of choice at the race. Kentucky Derby history tells us that Colonel Clark was serving these drinks, made from Kentucky bourbon, to famous Polish actress Helena Modjeska as early as the third running of the race in 1877.
Eye-catching hats are a common theme in Kentucky Derby history. The statement hat is a tradition that has its roots in the British horse-racing practice, which laid-out a dress code for track attendees. The extravagant hats that are a staple at today’s Derby began appearing in the 1960s.
The Derby has become the most famous horse race in the United States, attracting record audiences and earning millions in betting revenue. Even though Americans do not follow horse racing as closely as they once did, the Kentucky Derby annually has 100,000+ live spectators and millions more watching on television across the world.
2018 Kentucky Derby
The 2018 Kentucky Derby, coming up on Saturday, May 5, will be the 144th consecutive running of The Greatest Two Minutes in Sports. Will you be in attendance?
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