There are few American sporting events with the history and popularity of the Kentucky Derby. Its rich traditions – sipping a mint julep, donning a beautiful hat, and joining fellow race fans in singing “My Old Kentucky Home” – transcend the Kentucky Derby from just a sporting event, making it a celebration of southern culture and a true icon of Americana. The Kentucky Derby is the longest running sporting event in the United States, dating back to 1875.
The Kentucky Derby’s long history began in 1872, when Meriwether Lewis Clark, the grandson of William Clark – of the famed pair Lewis and Clark – traveled to Europe. While there, Clark attended the Epsom Derby in England, a well-known horse race run since 1780, and also fraternized with the French Jockey Club, a group that developed another popular horse race, the Grand Prix de Paris Longchamps. Clark was inspired by his travels and experiences, and, upon his return, was determined to create a spectacle horse racing event in the States. With the help of his uncles John & Henry Churchill, who gifted Clark the necessary land to develop a racetrack, and by formally organizing a group of local race fans to be named the Louisville Jockey Club, Clark and his new club raised funds to build a permanent racetrack in Louisville, Kentucky. On May 17th, 1875, the racetrack opened its gates and the Louisville Jockey Club sponsored the very first Kentucky Derby. A total of fifteen three-year-old Thoroughbred horses raced one and a half miles in front of a cheering crowd of approximately 10,000 spectators. Aristides was the first winner of the Kentucky Derby.
Today, 20 horses compete in the Kentucky Derby, which is a larger field size than most horse races; where on average 8 horses race against one another. The 20 horses racing in the Kentucky Derby must first travel along the Road to the Kentucky Derby, which is a series of 35 races taking place at tracks across the country and the world. Points are awarded to the top 4 horses that finish in each of those 35 races, and the 20 horses with the most points earn a spot in the starting gate in the Kentucky Derby race. The Kentucky Derby winning purse is $2 million.
The Kentucky Derby takes place on the first Saturday in May every year, and typically draws a crowd of 155,000 people. It is the longest continually held sporting event in America, and it is one of the most prestigious horse races in the world. Often called “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports”, the Kentucky Derby receives this nickname from the approximate length of time it takes the winner to run from the starting gate to the finish line. The Kentucky Derby is the first race within the Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing, where it is followed by the Preakness Stakes race and the Belmont Stakes race.
As with any major event, the Kentucky Derby has undergone various changes over the course of three centuries. From shortening the distance of the race, the introduction of traditions like draping the winning horse in a garland of roses, to the growing size of Derby crowds, the Kentucky Derby has embraced the change of time, while honoring the integrity of the spectacle race set forth by Meriwether Lewis Clark.