Kentucky Derby 2020

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What is the Kentucky Derby?

It is quite simply, America's biggest race. It is a 1 ¼-mile dirt event for 3-year-olds run annually on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. Otherwise known as the ‘Run for the Roses,’ due to its tradition of covering the winner in a blanket of roses post-race, the Derby is the preeminent race for 3-year-olds in the country.

What is the history of the race?

The race was first run in 1875 and serves as the first leg of the American Triple Crown, which also includes the Preakness and the Belmont. Though the inaugural running was run in front of a crowd of 10,000, it was not until the early 20th century that the race truly began to take flight. Under the direction of Colonel Matt Winn, a skilled marketer who took over operations of Churchill Downs in 1914, the track, and in turn the Derby, flourished. Winn is responsible for much of the prestige and glamor that are attributed to the race, with the filly Regret’s victory in 1915 serving as a watershed moment for the event becoming an inextricable part of popular culture.

While Winn’s efforts were instrumental in the event gaining popularity, it was the formation of the Triple Crown series that solidified its status as the nation’s most famous race. Sir Barton was the first horse to win the Triple Crown in 1919, but the phrase didn’t officially enter the American lexicon until 1930, when Gallant Fox became the second horse to sweep all three races. A year later the order of the Triple Crown races was permanently set, and the Derby’s place in racing history was assured.

The 1930’s also ushered in a golden age for the Derby and the Triple Crown series. Over the two decades following the official emergence of the Triple Crown, seven horses accomplished the feat, including Gallant Fox (1930), Omaha (1935), War Admiral (1937), Whirlaway (1941), Count Fleet (1943), Assault (1946) and Citation (1948). These horses did much to capture the public’s imagination and gain the race further acclaim, and no period in history has seen a higher concentration of Triple Crown winners.

What are the most memorable runnings/most famous winners of the Derby?

While there have been countless Derby winners and runnings that have added to the mystique first cultivated by Winn and bolstered by the bevy of Triple Crown winners in the 1930’s and 40’s, none have made a more indelible mark on American racing than Secretariat. ‘Big Red,’ as he was known because of his chestnut color, won the Derby in record time in 1973 and would go on to sweep all three Triple Crown races — the first to do so since Citation in 1948 — dominating his competition and setting track records at each stop. The echoes of his brilliance can still be felt in the sport today and he is widely regarded as the best American racehorse of all time, so it’s fitting his record in the nation’s most famous race has never been eclipsed (Monarchos is the only other horse with a winning time under two minutes).

Other memorable renewals of the Run for the Roses include 1977 and ‘78, which were won by Seattle Slew and Affirmed, both of whom would go on to win the Triple Crown; 1980 and ‘88, when Genuine Risk and Winning Colors joined Regret as the only fillies in history to win the race; 2015, when American Pharoah took the Derby before capturing the Preakness and Belmont, thus ending a decades-long Triple Crown drought; 1913, when Donerail upset the race at a record 91-1 (amazingly, he did so against just seven competitors); and 2009, when Mine That Bird exploded from the back of the pack after a rail-skimming ride to win by 6 ¾ lengths at 50-1.

What happened at the 2019 Race?

Arguably the most infamous running of the Run for the Roses occurred in 2019, when the race garnered national attention for a controversial disqualification. Though Maximum Security crossed the finish line first in the 145th Derby, after a lengthy inquiry by the track stewards he was subsequently placed 17th for interference that occurred at the five-sixteenths pole. Country House, who crossed the line second, was declared the winner, marking the first time in history the race was decided by an on-track infraction.

Are there any prep races for the Derby?

One of the biggest changes to come to the race in recent years is the Road to the Kentucky Derby qualification system, which was instituted in 2012 to better determine who should be allotted a spot in the starting gate for the race. The system awards points based on where horses have finished in a series of prep races for the Derby, with the most important races offering 100 points to the first-place finisher, 40 to second, 20 to third and 10 to fourth, while the least impactful impactful preps offer a point scale of 10-4-2-1. Once the final prep race is run, the 20 horses with the most points are offered a spot in the starting gate for the Derby. Should one or more of the top 20 not be able to make the race, an invitation is extended to the horse or horses with the next most points.

The chief prep races for the Derby are the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby at the Fair Grounds, the Group 2 UAE Derby at Meydan Racecourse in Dubai, the Grade 2 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct Racetrack, the Grade 2 Blue Grass at Keeneland, the Grade 1 Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park, the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby at Santa Anita Park and the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park. Churchill Downs has also made an effort to attract more international participation in the race by implementing the European Road and the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby, which, like their American counterpart, offer qualification points based on a series of prep races in those jurisdictions. 

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