Brief History of the Kentucky Derby

A Brief History of the Hugely Popular Kentucky Derby

The Kentucky Derby had nationwide television coverage for the first time on May 3, 1952. Read on for more such interesting facts about the evolution of one of the most popular sporting events in the US...
SportsAspire Staff
Last Updated: Jul 22, 2017
One of the major horse breeding centers in America is Kentucky. The Bluegrass Region in Kentucky was famous for breeding superior racehorses. In 1872, Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., had traveled to England to visit the famous Epsom Derby. He was immensely impressed by the facilities and the way the race was conducted. While touring Europe, Clark also visited France and had an opportunity to witness the Grand Prix de Paris, in Paris.
Grand Prix de Paris and Epsom Derby were the greatest races held in Europe annually. On returning home, Col. Clark, along with a few horse breeders, organized a race in Louisville, Kentucky, to raise money to build a race club outside the city limits. A racetrack equal to the European standards was built and this club was known as Louisville Jockey club. The relatives of Clark, Henry Churchill, and John Churchill, granted the land for the racetrack. In 1937, this racetrack was renamed as "Churchill Downs".
Through the Years
The Derby is held annually on the first Saturday in May, in Louisville, Kentucky. The race concludes the two-week long Kentucky Derby Festival.
Only the colts and gelding above three years of age are allowed to participate in the race. The colt and geldings carry 126 pounds, while the fillies carry 121 pounds.
On May 17, 1875, the first derby was held in Churchill Downs. Fifteen horses participated in this race, and the estimated crowd was 10,000 people.
The distance covered in the first derby was 1.5 miles, similar to the Epsom Derby of England and Grand Prix de Paris. However, in 1896, the distance covered was dropped to 1.25 miles.
The inaugural derby was won by an African American jockey Oliver Lewis. He rode astride the horse Aristides.
It was known as the 'Run for the Roses'. The reason is the winner is wrapped with a blanket of roses at the time of trophy presentation.
African Americans played a significant role in the Kentucky Derby. Out of twenty eight races held between 1875 and 1902, African American jockeys won fifteen races.
Alonzo Clayton, also known as "Lonnies", became the youngest African-American jockey to win the derby, when he won on May 11, 1892.
In 1915, Regret became the first filly to win and two years later in 1917, an English colt, Omar Khayyam, became the first foreign-bred horse to win the derby. The horse Apollo, aged two, was the youngest horse ever to win, in 1882. Apollo was an aberration, since the rules prevet participants under 3 years old from taking part, and no other horse has won the race at that age.
Women also played a significant and active role. Mrs. Laska Durnell was the first woman to nominate her horse, Elwood, in 1904. In the 1942 derby, women owned seven of the first eight horses, and there were women horse trainers. Four women have participated in the famed race. The Kentucky Derby is one of the most renowned Grade I Stakes races.