On Saturday May 7th at approximately 6:27 pm, when the crowds raise their voices in a heartfelt rendition of Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home,” all eyes are on the starting gate of a cherished annual event that was founded in 1875 by Meriwether Lewis Clark, the grandson of William Clark – of the famed explorers team, Lewis and Clark. After attending the Epsom Derby in England, “Lutie” – as he was known to family and friends – was determined to create a spectacular horse racing event in the United States. We think he succeeded!
Churchill Downs is named after Henry Churchill who, along with Meriwether Lewis Clark’s uncle John, gifted the land to establish the racetrack on the very same grounds it exists today.
The Jockey Club of Louisville founded by Clark sponsored the first Derby with a total of fifteen three-year-old thoroughbred horses racing 1½ miles in front of a crowd of approximately 10,000 spectators. Today, the Kentucky Derby takes place on the first Saturday in May, and typically draws a crowd of about 155,000 spectators in live attendance with millions more watching live on television coverage.
Thirteen of the 15 riders in the first Derby were of African-American heritage, and 15 of the first 28 Derby runnings were won by African-American reinsmen. The first three-time winner of the Kentucky Derby was African-American Isaac Burn Murphy who jockeyed to first place in 1884, 1890 and 1891 and is still considered by some experts as one of the greatest jockeys in America. The last African-American to win the Kentucky Derby was James Winkfield who won in both 1901 and 1902.
Today, 20 horses and jockeys of varying nationalities, race and gender run in the Kentucky Derby. The horses are all three-year-old thoroughbreds (who only get to run this race once in their lives) carrying 121 pounds of weight that thunder down the one and one-quarter mile dirt track.
It was the Derby itself that dubbed the Kentucky Derby as “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports” and only two horses in the history of the Kentucky Derby have ever finished in under two minutes: First, the famed Secretariat finished in 1973 in 1:59 and 2/5, and then Monarchos in 2001 in a computer-timed 1:59:97.
Inspired by trips to London’s Epsom Derby and the Paris Grand Prix – posh events that attracted an elegant crowd – Meriwether Lewis Clark sought in the 1870’s to transform Churchill Downs to a venue that might attract a similar, wealthier crowd.
With the help of his wife, he went on a campaign throughout Louisville to convince the smart set that the new race track was a place for the upper class – ladies included – to see and be seen in their finest. Thus Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby were transformed into a place of fashion where – to this day – the chic set shows off chapeaux that rival Ascot’s Royal Enclosure.
It wasn’t until 1896, twenty-one years after the first Derby, when winning jockey Ben Brush received a floral arrangement of white and pink roses that the Rose Garland tradition first appeared. In 1925, New York sports columnist Bill Corum named the Kentucky Derby the “Run for the Roses.” The brilliant all red-rose garland as it exists today, was first introduced in 1932.
Available at Amazon. com. Click on title to order.
The Kentucky Derby: 101 Reasons to Love America’s Favorite Horse Race
by Mary Tiegreen and Sherri Seggerman
The Kentucky Derby: Derby Fever, Derby Day and The Run for the Roses from a Taste of Kentucky
by Bill Doolittle
The Kentucky Derby: How The Run for the Roses Became America’s Premiere Sporting Event
by James Nicholson and Chris McCarron
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