The Kentucky Derby, first held in 1875 at Churchill Downs racetrack in Louisville, is the longest-running sports event in the United States. Dubbed the “Run for the Roses,” the Derby features three-year-old thoroughbreds racing a distance of 1.25 miles. Today, some 150,000 spectators gather annually on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby, sometimes referred to as “the greatest two minutes in sports.” Besides placing bets on horses, Derby fans are famous for drinking mint juleps, singing “Old Kentucky Home” and wearing flamboyant hats.
FIRST KENTUCKY DERBY
The Kentucky Derby was started by Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr., grandson of explorer William Clark, of Lewis and Clark Expedition fame. Clark, who was inspired by horse races he’d seen in Europe, raised the money to build Churchill Downs on land donated by his uncles.
In 1872, Clark traveled to Europe, where he visited leading horse-racing sites in England and France. He was inspired by England’s Epsom Downs racecourse, home since 1780 of the Derby Stakes, a 1.5-mile race for three-year-old horses organized by the 12th earl of Derby and his friends.
Clark returned home to Kentucky, founded the Louisville Jockey Club and raised money to construct a racetrack on land donated by his uncles, Henry and John Churchill. Famed for throwing extravagant parties, Clark envisioned his racetrack as a place where the city’s stylish residents would gather.
On May 17, 1875, some 10,000 people attended the first Kentucky Derby, which featured a field of 15 three-year-old thoroughbreds racing 1.5 miles. The winning horse, Aristides, finished with a time of 2:37.75 and was ridden by Oliver Lewis, an African-American jockey.
EVOLUTION OF THE DERBY
Thirteen of the fifteen jockeys in the inaugural Derby were black, and black riders played a dominant role in the race’s early years. Between 1875 and 1902, eleven black jockeys rode 15 of the winning horses.
However, by the early 20th century, prejudice and jealousy of these jockeys’ success resulted in African-American riders largely disappearing from horse racing. Jimmy Winkfield, the last black jockey to win the Derby, did so in 1901 and 1902.
Another change to the Derby that occurred in its early years was the shortening of the race. In 1896, following complaints by some members of the racing community that the distance was too long, the event was reduced from 1.5 miles to 1.25 miles, the length it remains today.
COLONEL MATT WINN
In 1902, a new management team took over Churchill Downs that included Martin “Matt” Winn, a Louisville native and larger-than-life promoter who was instrumental in transforming the Derby from a local event into America’s most iconic horse race.
In 1908, Winn, who eventually started using the honorary title “colonel,” played a key role in introducing a new system of placing bets at Churchill Downs, replacing human bookmakers with French pari-mutuel machines, a move that proved popular with race fans.
Winn also started the publicity-generating practice of inviting celebrities to the Derby, and advocated broadcasting the race on the radio, something other racing executives thought would hurt attendance numbers.
In 1925, the Derby aired on network radio for the first time; and afterward, attendance continued to grow. 1949 marked the first year the Derby was locally televised. Three years later, in 1952, the Kentucky Derby made its debut on national TV.
HORSES AND JOCKEYS
In 1973, Secretariat became the fastest Derby winner in history with a time of 1:59.40, a record that still stands.
Recommended for you
Three years earlier, in 1970, Diane Crump became the first female jockey to ride in the Derby; she finished 15th in a field of 17 horses. Crump also broke ground in 1969, when she became the first woman to ride in a pari-mutuel race in North America, at Hialeah Park in Florida.
In 1986, 54-year-old Bill Shoemaker broke ground in a different way by becoming the oldest jockey to win the Derby.
Only a few fillies (female horses) have won the Derby; the first to do so was Regret, in 1915.
The first horse to win racing’s prestigious Triple Crown—by winning the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes—was Sir Barton in 1919, although it wasn’t until the 1930s that the three races were widely known by that term.
In 1968, Dancer’s Image became the first Derby winner to be barred from receiving prize money after testing positive for a banned medication following the race.
To qualify to ride in the Derby, a horse must compete in designated prep races at a series of tracks. The top four finishers in each race receive points, and the 20 horses who accumulate the most points are eligible to enter the Derby.
In 2017, the guaranteed prize money for the Derby was $2 million, which was divided among the top finishers, with the winner taking home more than $1.6 million.
KENTUCKY DERBY TRADITIONS
The Derby is steeped in tradition, including some, such as mint juleps and “My Old Kentucky Home,” that link the race to a romanticized version of the Old South.
When the horses parade onto the dirt track before the start of the race, the crowd sings along to the 19th century ballad “My Old Kentucky Home” by composer Stephen Foster. According to some accounts, the song was first played at the Derby in 1921.
The mint julep—a drink that originated in the South and is made with bourbon, sugar, mint and crushed ice—has been a Derby tradition for nearly a century.
RUN FOR THE ROSES
Roses are another longtime Derby tradition. In 1884, Meriwether Clark started the practice of giving the winning jockey a bouquet of roses.
In 1925, a New York sports columnist nicknamed the Derby the “Run for the Roses.” Since the early 1930s, it’s been customary to place a large garland of roses over the winning horse.
Fashion has been a part of the Derby since its inception, thanks to founder Clark, who wanted to improve the image of American racetracks and attract an upscale crowd to Churchill Downs.
In the 1960s, spurred on in part by the presence of TV cameras at the Kentucky Derby, both male and female Derby-goers started the tradition of sporting fancy hats on race day.
The Kentucky Derby: How the Run for the Roses Became America’s Premier Sporting Event. James C. Nicholson. University Press of Kentucky.
An Introduction to the Kentucky Derby – the “Greatest Two Minutes in Sports.” Kentucky Derby Museum.
The Story of the Derby (Epsom). Epsom Derby.
The Forgotten History of African-American Jockeys. NPR.
The Woman Who Smashed the Kentucky Derby’s Glass Ceiling (Diane Crump). CNN.
A Brief History of the Kentucky Derby’s Most Famous Accessory. NBC Chicago.