The Kentucky Derby: A Brief History
Updated: Mar 21
Widely known as “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports” because of its approximate duration, The Kentucky Derby is a horse race held annually in Louisville, Kentucky, almost always on the first Saturday in May, capping the two-week-long Kentucky Derby Festival. And since today is Derby Day, I wanted to take a deeper look at the history of one of the longest running uninterrupted sports programs in U.S. history.
Also known as the "Run for the Roses," because of the blanket of roses draped over the winner, the Derby is the first in a series of races called The Triple Crown; it's followed by the Preakness Stakes (Maryland) and the Belmont Stakes (New York).
The Kentucky Derby was started in 1872 by Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr., grandson of William Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition. He had traveled to England and attended Epsom in Surrey where The Derby had been running annually since 1780.
From there, Clark journeyed to Paris, France, where a group of racing enthusiasts had formed the French Jockey Club in 1863. This trip inspired him to organize the Louisville Jockey Club and begin his own racetrack when he returned to Kentucky. His uncles John and Henry Churchill provided the land and the name for the now famous Churchill Downs.
Because Clark had a taste for extravagant living, he wanted to fashion The Kentucky Derby after the high-class world he had witnessed at the European racing events, which mandated full morning dress for men and women. The fashion and society Clark wanted at Churchill Downs are exemplified here in these old images from the Royal Ascot races in England in the late 1880s - early 1900s.
So for the first race, he recruited high-society folks to attend the race. From there it became a place for the most fashionable to display the latest fashions. The modern day spectacle of the hats didn't really take off until the 1960s when the hats became a hyper-stylized version of the large-brimmed hats worn by Victorian and Edwardian Era women. Now it's a tradition to wear the most ornate and elaborate hats one can dream up.
The track suffered many financial ups and downs through the years, but became the preeminent stakes race for young thoroughbreds in 1902 when Louisville native, Colonel Matt Winn, put together a pool of investors.
In 1919, the first horse to win the Triple Crown was Sir Barton (now the name of a road in Lexington, Kentucky). However, at that time, it wasn’t known as the Triple Crown. That title didn’t come into effect until 1930. In spite of the challenges presented by the Great Depression and WWI and WWII, the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont continued uninterrupted though other sports programs canceled their events.
The fastest time ever run in the Derby was in 1973 at 1:59.4 minutes, when Secretariat (pictured right) broke the record set by Northern Dancer in 1964 – a record time yet to be broken.
Also during that race, he did something unique in Triple Crown races: for each successive quarter ran, his times were faster.
The Kentucky Derby is the longest running race in the United States without interruption until 2020 when the Covid-19 outbreak shifted its schedule.
A few interesting dates:
1874 – Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark forms the Louisville Jockey Club and acquires land for racetrack from his uncles John & Henry Churchill.
1875 – The first Kentucky Derby race takes place on May 17th. Aristides races 1.5 miles to win, in a field of fifteen horses, in front of a crowd of 10,000 spectators.
1895 – The famed Twin Spires greet the Kentucky Derby crowd, on May 6th. Halma wins the Derby.
1903 – Now under the leadership of Colonel Matt J. Winn, the racetrack celebrates its first profit after the Kentucky Derby on May 2nd where Judge Himes wins the race.
1904 – The red rose becomes the official flower of the Kentucky Derby and Elwood wins the race.
1915 – For the third consecutive year, the Kentucky Derby splashes the news, as the first filly, Regret, wins the race. This publicity establishes the Kentucky Derby as a premier sporting event in America, after its 41st running.
1919 – Sir Barton wins the Derby and is also the first winner of what would become the Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing. In the span of just 32 days, Sir Barton won the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, the Withers Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes.
1925 – The first network radio broadcast of the Kentucky Derby takes place on May 16th, with about 5 to 6 million listeners tuning in to hear Flying Ebony win the Derby. Also, notable in the year, the phrase “Run for the Roses®” is coined by Bill Corum, a sports columnist for the New York Evening Journal and the New York Journal - American.
1930 – Gallant Fox wins the Derby, and the term Triple Crown is officially used by the New York Times to describe his combined wins in the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes.
1931 – The Kentucky Derby is permanently scheduled for the first Saturday in May.
1932 – Despite the Great Depression, the Kentucky Derby race continues to take place and has much to celebrate. The race is internationally broadcast, reaching England’s British Broadcasting Company, and the winner, Burgoo King, is the first Kentucky Derby winner to be draped in a garland of red roses.
1949 – The 75th Kentucky Derby is locally telecast for the first time, and Ponder wins the Derby.
1952 – The public exposure of the Kentucky Derby is expanded with the first national live television coverage in its history. An estimated 10 to 15 million viewers tune in to watch Hill Gale win the Derby.
1970 – Diane Crump is the first female jockey to ride in the Kentucky Derby race.
1973 – In the 99th running of the Kentucky Derby, Secretariat wins with the fastest finishing time to date. Secretariat completed the race in 1:59:40, and went on to win the Triple Crown, for the first time in 25 years.
1986 – The home of the Kentucky Derby race, Churchill Downs Racetrack, is formally placed on the register of National Historic Landmarks. Ferdinand wins the Derby.
2015 – American Pharoah wins the Kentucky Derby and goes on to win the Triple Crown. He breaks a Triple Crown drought lasting over 30 years.
2018 – Justify wins the Kentucky Derby and continues on to clinch the Triple Crown. He is the last horse to date to win the Triple Crown.
Because The Kentucky Derby is one of the longest continuous running sports programs in United States history, it has a long and fascinating history, as well as a few mysteries that would inspire a novel or two. The next few posts will explore some of these events.