Kentucky Derby History
By Matthew Bass
The classic American horse race, the Kentucky Derby is the oldest consecutively held Thoroughbred race in America. It is run annually on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. Along with the Preakness in mid-May, and Belmont in early June, it is the first jewel of the coveted Triple Crown of Thoroughbred racing, which has been won by only eleven horses since 1919. Triple Crown winners include memorable names such as Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Whirlaway, and Affirmed.
The first Kentucky Derby was held May 17, 1875, before a crowd of 10,000 from around the city, state and surrounding areas. In that race, a field of 15 three-year-olds ran a 1.5 mile course which was won by H.P. McGrath’s Aristides. Although the first Derby was held at 1.5 miles, the distance was changed to the current 1.25 miles in 1896. The Derby field is limited to three-year-olds; fillies carry 121 pounds and colts 126 pounds. So far, only three fillies have won the Derby: Regret in 1915, Genuine Risk in 1980, and Winning Colors in 1988. The Kentucky Derby has also produced countless statistics and bits of trivia over the course of its history. The largest field was during the 100th running in 1974 when 23 horses ran. The smallest fields were in 1892 and 1905, with only three horses in each race.
The fastest Derby was run by the legendary Secretariat, who covered the 1 1/4 miles in 1:59 2/5, the only Derby winner to finish under two minutes.
Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr who built Churchill Downs in Louisville, wanted his track to have a race that would rival England’s Epsom Derby. After visiting England to study both its tracks and its races, he established the Kentucky Derby, which was first run on May 17, 1875.
However, the Derby was just another regional race until 1902, when Colonel Matt J. Winn took over the track. Although he had seen every Derby since the beginning, Winn knew little about horse racing or running tracks. But he was a very good promoter.
After raising money to save Churchill Downs from bankruptcy, Winn began making frequent trips to New York, then the center of American racing to persuade owners to enter their horses in the Kentucky Derby. His persistence paid off. By 1920, the Derby had become the best-known race in the North America and it was attracting the top three-year-olds from all over the country.
The first race in the Triple Crown, The Derby is run on the first Saturday in May. A whole week of festivities know as The Kentucky Derby Festival is built around the race which, like the Indianapolis 500, has become as much a happening as a sporting event. It attracts crowds of well over 150,000 spectators and is watched on television by millions more, many of whom are otherwise not interested in Thoroughbred racing.
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