The Kentucky Derby was first held at Churchill Downs racetrack in Louisville, KY in 1875, making it the longest-running sports event in the United States. The race is held on the first Saturday in May and has been given the nickname of “the greatest two minutes in sports.”
A Pioneering Family
The Kentucky Derby was started by Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr., grandson of explorer William Clark of the famed Lewis and Clark Expedition. On an 1872 visit to Europe, Clark was inspired by England’s Epsom Downs Racecourse, home of the Derby Stakes.
Upon returning home to Kentucky, Clark founded the Louisville Jockey Club and raised money to construct a racetrack on land donated by his uncles, Henry and John Churchill. The first running of the Kentucky Derby was held at the track’s inaugural meet on May 17th, 1875, with a field of 15 three-year-old Thoroughbreds racing 1.5 miles.
There were roughly 10,000 spectators present for the first Kentucky Derby. The crowd witnessed the winning horse, Aristides, cross the finish line with a time of 2 minutes and 37.75 seconds.
Over the Kentucky Derby’s nearly 150-year history, it has seen a number of notable changes, including the distance of the race. In 1896, it was determined that 1.5 miles was too long for three-year-old Thoroughbreds to race so early in the season, and the distance was dropped to 1.25 miles.
And while red roses are now deeply entrenched in Derby imagery, they weren’t always presented to the winning horse. In early runnings, winners were draped with arrangements of pink and white roses. The red rose became the official flower of the Kentucky Derby in 1904, and the phrase “Run for the Roses” was coined by sports columnist Bill Corum in 1925. Now, winning horses are awarded a garland sewn with over 400 roses, weighing roughly 40 pounds.
Another iconic element of the Kentucky Derby is its regular running on the first Saturday in May. But in the early years of the race, it was inconsistently scheduled for dates in mid-May. The switch to a permanent date of the first Saturday in May was made in 1931. This change was largely due to the excitement over potential Triple Crown winners, as a consistent schedule would allow horses to compete in all three races — the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes.
While winning the Kentucky Derby is a huge accomplishment in itself, a number of horses have managed to stake a claim in racing history over-and-above winning the Run for the Roses. In 1919, Sir Barton became the first horse to win all three Triple Crown races, although he did so before the phrase “Triple Crown” was coined. His dominance in the races was unexpected, as he hadn’t won a single race until the Kentucky Derby.
In the 99th running of the Kentucky Derby in 1973, racing legend Secretariat won with the fastest finishing time to date of 1 minute and 59.4 seconds. Secretariat went on to win the Triple Crown, becoming the first horse to do so in 25 years. His victory in the Belmont Stakes is considered one of the most stunning finishes in the history of racing, as he beat his closest competitor by a massive 31 lengths — nearly the length of a football field.
The large majority of Kentucky Derby horses have been colts, but a few fillies have staked their claim as well. Of the 39 female horses that have run in the Kentucky Derby, three won the race — Regret in 1915, Genuine Risk in 1980, and Winning Colors in 1988. And while a filly has yet to win the Triple Crown, Genuine Risk came the closest, finishing in second place at both the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes following her Derby victory.
Lewis & Clark