Kentucky Derby History

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America’s most famous horse race, the Kentucky Derby 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. It is otherwise known as the ‘Run for the Roses,’ due to its tradition of covering the winner in a blanket of roses post-race, and serves as the first leg of the American Triple Crown, which also includes the Preakness and the Belmont.

The Derby was first run in 1875 in front of a crowd of 10,000, and though the inaugural running was a modest success, it was not until the early 20th century that the race truly began to take shape. 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 undeniable part of U.S. popular culture.

While Winn’s efforts were instrumental in the Derby gaining popularity, it was the formation of the Triple Crown series that truly solidified its status as the nation’s most famous race. Sir Barton was the first horse to win the Triple Crown in 1919, however 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 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 Derby further acclaim, and no period in history has seen a higher concentration of Triple Crown winners.

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, becoming the first to do so since Citation in 1948. More than just win these races, Secretariat completely dominated his competition and set 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). You can read a full list of Kentucky Derby Fastest Times behind the link.

Though Secretariat retired at the end of his 3-year-old campaign in 1973, it didn’t take long for the Derby to launch two more horses to superstardom. Just four years later, Seattle Slew won the Derby before going on to win the Preakness and Belmont, and a year after that, in 1978, Affirmed became racing’s 11th Triple Crown winner. Like the 1930’s and 40’s, the 1970’s proved to be a very fruitful time in Triple Crown history, but Affirmed’s victory also ushered in the longest Triple Crown drought since the series was conceived, leading many to believe that it was an impossible feat in the modern era of racing. It wasn’t for another 37 years after Affirmed that American Pharoah finally dispelled the notion by sweeping all three races in 2015, and three years later Justify duplicated the feat.

Other memorable, more recent renewals of the Derby occurred in 1980 and ‘88, when Genuine Risk and Winning Colors joined Regret as the only fillies in history to win the race, and 2009, when Mine That Bird exploded from the back of the pack under a rail-skimming ride to win by 6 ¾ lengths at odds of 50-1. As shocking as it was, Mine That Bird’s victory was not the biggest upset in the race’s history, as that honor belongs to Donerail, who won at 91-1 in 1913 (amazingly, he did so against just seven competitors).

Arguably the most infamous Derby 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 conducted by the track stewards he was subsequently placed 17th for interference. 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. In 1968, Dancer’s Image was disqualified from victory after he failed a post-race drug test.

Beyond the race itself, the Derby has produced several traditions of its own, including the mint julep serving as its official drink and the playing of “My Old Kentucky Home” prior to the race as the horses are paraded in front of the grandstand. The song is played by the University of Louisville Cardinal Marching Band and was written by renowned 19th century songwriter Stephen Foster, who also lends his name to a prestigious race at Churchill Downs. In recent years, the call of “Riders Up!”, which alerts the jockeys to mount their horses for the race, has been performed by a dignitary or celebrity.

In 2019, for its 145th running, the Derby offered its highest ever purse of $3 million, compared to $1.5 million for the Preakness and the Belmont. The Derby reached the million dollar mark in 1996 and then went to $2 million in 2005. Unlike the Preakness and Belmont, it has run continuously since its inception in 1875.

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