The History of the Kentucky Derby


The History of the Kentucky Derby

By: Shannel Cacho


With the Kentucky Derby less than a week away, I thought that it would only be appropriate to give you a history of the race along with some facts that you may be unaware of.


The Kentucky Derby was first run in 1875, which makes it the longest running sporting event in the United States. The race was inspired by the Epsom Derby of England, which Colonel Merriweather Lewis Clark (grandson of William Clark) attended in 1872 and caused him to want to have a race of similar standards back in the United States. Upon his return to the U.S., Clark was given land to develop a racetrack as a gift from his uncle’s John and Henry Churchill. Clark was able to build the track by formally organizing a group of local race fans, which became known as the Louisville Jockey Club (LJC), to raise funds. The LJC opened the track on May 17, 1875 and sponsored the first Kentucky Derby. The first Kentucky Derby was a mile and a half long, with fifteen three year old Thoroughbreds entered to run. At that first race there were approximately ten thousand spectators that came to watch Aristides win that inaugural race. For the first running of the race, the purse was $3,050, with first place receiving $2,850 and second place receiving $200. That purse is todays money would equate to $70,483.28.


In 1896 the distance for the Derby was decreased from a mile a half to a mile and a quarter because people thought that the distance was too much for three year olds to handle that early in the year. This is also the year that a floral arrangement was given for the first time, however in 1896 the arrangement was made of white and pink roses. It was not until 1904 that roses became the official flower of the Kentucky Derby. It is during the 41st running of the Kentucky Derby that Regret becomes the first film to win the race. Just four years later Sir Barton wins the Kentucky Derby and what will eventually be known as the Triple Crown. The Derby is broadcast for the firsts time by a radio network in 1925 and it has been estimated that there were between five and six million listeners tuned into the broadcast. This is broadcast is then Bill Corum coins the term “Run for the Roses”. In 1931 it has been decided that the Derby will always be run on the first Saturday in May in order to help create a consistent racing schedule that would allow horses to attempt to achieve the Triple Crown. The following year, 1932, marks the first year that race is broadcasted internationally and Burgos King is the first winner to be draped in what is now the iconic garland of roses.


The “infield” is created in 1938, when they constructed a tunnel under the track that grandstand to the field inside of the track, the price for admission to this area was $0.50. The Derby had grown to be such a popular event that even during Word War II with travel restrictions and no out-of-town tickets being sold, over 65,000 spectators were at Churchill Downs to watch the Derby in 1943. Six short years later in 1949 the race was telecast locally for the first time, and then in 1952 the Derby was covered live on national television for the first time, with an estimated viewership of ten to fifteen million people. In 1954 the purse for the winning horse exceeded $100,000. In 1968 Dancer’s Image became the first winner of the Derby to be disqualified due to a positive drug test. As a result, the purse was taken from him and Forward Pass who had originally placed second became the new winner of the Derby. It isn’t until 1980 that we finally have our first female jockey, Diane Crump, to have a mount in the race, she placed fifteenth out of a field of eighteen. The fastest Derby time of 1:59:40 was posted by Secretariat in 1973. Just one year later 163,628 spectators gathered to watch the 100th running of the race, this happens to be the second largest crowd in the history of the sport at this time, with a record field size of twenty-three horses. In 1984, the Derby was simulcasted at twenty-four different tracks in the United States in order to allow live wagering. This set a record in North America for the amount wagered on a single race, the total handle was $18,941,933. The next year the purse for the race was increased to one million dollars.


Just a few more quick facts about the Derby. In 2004 Smarty Jones wins the race and ends up being featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Two years later in 2006 Barbaro sets a record by winning by six and a half lengths. In 2012 there were two records that were broken, the first one was the number of spectators present (165,307) and a new wagering record ($133.1M).


The Kentucky Derby is an event that has a rich history and that has captured the attention of racing fans for the last 145 years. The “fastest two minutes in sports”, is one of the most anticipated sporting events of the year and considering that this year is the year after a Triple Crown there will be tons of energy in the air. We wish all of the fans, jockeys, trainers, owners, horses, and their connections a happy and safe Derby!


*Information for this blog was derived from *