History of the Kentucky Derby
The Kentucky Derby is a Grade I stakes race for three-year-old thoroughbred
horses, held annually in Louisville, Kentucky, on the first Saturday
in May, capping the two-week-long Kentucky Derby Festival. The race
is one and a quarter miles at Churchill Downs. Colts and geldings
carry 126 pounds and fillies 121 pounds The race is known in the
United States as "The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports"
for its approximate duration, and is also called "The Run for
the Roses" for the blanket of roses draped over the winner.
It is the first leg of the Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing in
the US and typically draws around 155,000 fans.
Kentucky has been a major center of horse breeding and racing since
the late 18th century. From the time the region was settled, the
fields of the Bluegrass region were noted for producing superior
race horses. In 1872, Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., grandson
of William Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition, traveled to
England, visiting the Epsom Derby, a famous race that had been running
annually since 1780. From there, Clark went on to Paris, France,
where in 1863, a group of racing enthusiasts had formed the French
Jockey Club and had organized the Grand Prix de Paris, which at
the time was the greatest race in France.
Returning home to Kentucky, Clark organized the Louisville Jockey
Club for the purpose of raising money to build quality racing facilities
just outside of the city. The track would soon become known as Churchill
Downs, named for Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr.'s relatives, John and
Henry Churchill, who had provided the land for the racetrack. Officially,
the racetrack was incorporated as Churchill Downs in 1937.
The Kentucky Derby was first run at 1.5 miles the same distance
as the Epsom Derby and the Grand Prix de Paris. In 1896, the distance
was changed to its current 1.25 miles On May 17, 1875, in front
of an estimated crowd of 10,000 people, a field of 15 three-year-old
horses contested the first Derby. Under African-American jockey
Oliver Lewis, a colt named Aristides, who was trained by future
Hall of Famer, Ansel Williamson, won the inaugural Derby. Later
that year, Lewis rode Aristides to a second-place finish in the
The first winner of a Triple Crown race was Ruthless in the 1867
Belmont Stakes. The first Preakness winner was Survivor in 1873.