Kentucky Derby History

Each year, almost 50,000 people attend the Kentucky Derby. While it has been surpassed in betting interest among serious horse players by the Breeders’ Cup, the Kentucky Derby is by far the best known event among the mainstream sporting public. The popularity of these two minutes in racing has a history that extends all the way back to 1875. During these 140 years, changes have occurred and events have taken place that defines Kentucky Derby heritage as well as the horse betting that goes along with it.

The modern Kentucky Derby

The “Run for the Roses” is held annually on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky and features the best three year olds in the sport, with hundreds of spectators, some of which (or most really in terms of the women), wearing some elaborate and/or classy hats, known now also as Kentucky Derby and/or Horse racing hats. However, this is also a three-week social event in the region and the live attendance at the Kentucky Derby surpasses most major stakes races in the United States.

In the weeks leading up to “Derby Day,” there are balloon races, one of the world’s largest fireworks displays, and the Pegasus Parade. On the day of the Kentucky Derby, tourists and locals fill the famous Infield of the racetrack for a Mardi Gras style celebration at Churchill Downs complete with their betting ticket and a bourbon Mint Julep. While some things have changed, there are still plenty of original details based on the first Kentucky Derby.

How the idea for the Kentucky Derby got started

At one time, the ancestry of a horse was unclear. This meant that many people would have to trust the dealer that they bought their horses from. In the late 1700’s, a task was commissioned by the British Jockey Club to determine (via third party) each horse’s lineage. Once this book was compiled, there was a new term that evolved called “Thoroughbred”. As the word implies, this is a thoroughly researched horse that is bred to be the best.

Naturally, figuring out which horse was the greatest was determined by a race. These styles of races for thoroughbreds are still called derbies. Eventually, the idea of a “stud book” developed by the American Jockey Club gave America the ability to have thoroughbreds and thoroughbred racing. Soon after the first stud book was published in America, the Kentucky Derby was born; and in other words, jockeys had a lot to do with the rise of this fabulous horse racing event.

The very first Kentucky Derby

Aristides, ridden by jockey Oliver Lewis, was the first winner of the Kentucky Derby on May 17, 1875 and brought $2,850 to his owner. Back then, the racetrack mimicked the Epsom Derby in England and was 1 mile and ½ instead of 1 mile and ¼ like it is today (changed in 1896). Still, Aristides finished in front of about 10,000 spectators in 2:37.75 minutes.

While the Phoenix Stakes preceded the Kentucky Derby as the first in America (1831), it is certainly one of the oldest. After William Clark returned from England, he decided that there should be a derby in America as well. With the establishment of the Louisville Jockey Club, Clark began the Kentucky Derby. Eventually the grounds that his uncles donated for the Derby became known as Churchill Downs.

Private owners improves Kentucky Derby reputation

Although the first race met with considerable success, both Churchill Downs and the Derby struggled to gain traction during the early part of its existence. Part of the problem was the unregulated horse betting that led to problems with organized crime.

To gain control of the reputation of the track among other goals, in 1902 Colonel Matt Winn of Louisville organized a group of executives to buy the facility. Under their stewardship, the Kentucky Derby became the biggest ongoing horseracing event in the United States.

In the early 1930s, the system of gambling called pari-mutuel betting was introduced. This led to a reduction in crime and racetracks like Churchill Downs took notice. By 1937, when Churchill Downs was incorporated, pari-mutuel betting was seen as a long over due way of repairing this horse track’s reputation.

The Kentucky Derby’s Triple Crown beginnings

The Derby was originally held in mid-May until a horse named Sir Barton won the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont in 1919 to become the first winner of what would become the ‘Triple Crown’. The accomplishment actually predates the term itself – the “Triple Crown” nomenclature was coined by sportswriter Charles Hatton after Gallant Fox became the second winner in 1930.

Two years later, the Derby moved its annual race date to early May to better accommodate the other two races and the ‘Triple Crown’ has been a significant part of horse racing lore since. In order to get in on the action, attend the Preakness in Baltimore, Maryland and the Belmont Stakes in Elmont, New York in addition to attending the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.

Premiere black tie Kentucky Derby events

Anyone that loves luxury living knows that the Kentucky Derby has almost three weeks of black tie events. Since 1956, most locals will tell you that the best part of partying during the Kentucky Derby Festival is the opportunity to meet royalty, celebrities, and socialites. By and large, these high-end galas are organized to raise money for charities such as orphanages, injured jockeys, and retired Thoroughbreds.