History of the Kentucky Derby

Updated: Apr 10, 2019

Meriwether Lewis Clark is responsible for the greatest two minutes in sports. In 1872, Clark traveled to Europe. There, he witnessed the spectacle of the Epsom Derby in England. In the spirit of discovery that he had inherited from his grandfather, William Clark of the famed Lewis and Clark Expedition, Meriwether Clark returned home with an idea: to make a popular horse race in the United States.

His first step toward his goal was forming the Louisville Jockey Club. The group of racing fans began fundraising to build a track on land that had been donated to Clark by his uncles John and Henry Churchill. Clark’s new racetrack opened its doors to the public on May 17th, 1875. 10,000 people came to witness the running of the first Kentucky Derby. Of the fifteen three-year olds that ran, Aristides was the first to cross the wire.


Twenty-years after the first Kentucky Derby, a 285 foot grandstand was constructed to help the track manage the growing number of attendees. The next year, the famed Twin Spires made their first appearance at Churchill Downs. In 1896, the distance of the race was changed from 1 ½ miles to 1 ¼ miles. It remains that way today. The stock market crash of 1893 created great loss for Meriwether Lewis Clark. To avoid a life of poverty, he commited suicide with a pistol just twelve days before the Kentucky Derby. Ten years later, Churchill Downs made its first profit.

Colonel Matt Winn took over Churchill Downs following Clark’s death. He was an instrumental part of promoting the Kentucky Derby to make it one of the most popular sporting events in the country. He introduced pari-mutuel betting machines and invited celebrities to the Derby.


In 1904, the red rose became the official flower of the Kentucky Derby.


In 1913, the fee to nominate a horse for the Kentucky Derby became $25. In order for a horse to actually run in the race, another $100 is required. The Derby’s purse reached $5,475.


Regret became the first of three fillies to win the Kentucky Derby in 1915. Genuine Risk followed Regret in 1980 and Winning Colors became the most recent filly to win in 1988.


The first radio broadcast of the Kentucky Derby happened in 1925. Six million people tuned in to hear Flying Ebony win. Gallant Fox won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes in 1930 and the term “Triple Crown” was used to describe his victory for the first time (although Sir Barton did the same in 1919). His Triple Crown victory prompted the Kentucky Derby to be scheduled for the “First Saturday in May” to allow a consistent racing schedule for horses looking to attempt all three races.


The first telecast of the Kentucky Derby in 1945 showed Ponder winning. Three years later, the Derby was given live coverage on television for the very first time. Up to fifteen million people watched the coverage.


In the 1960s, the tradition of wearing hats to the Kentucky Derby began to emerge in males and females alike. Fashion remains an important Kentucky Derby tradition.


Diane Crump became the first female jockey to ever ride in the Kentucky Derby in 1970. Her horse finished fifteenth out of eighteen horses. In 1986, Bill Shoemaker became the oldest jockey to win the Kentucky Derby when he rode Ferdinand to victory. He was 54. The Kentucky Derby Museum opened up for the first time in 1985. It remains open at Churchill Downs today.


Today, the Kentucky Derby remains one of the most celebrated events in the United States. Each year, thousands of people make their way to Churchill Downs in hopes of being apart of greatness. Millions more watch from their homes. 2019 marks the 145th running of the nation’s oldest premier sporting event. How will history be made this year?



Footage of the 1918 Kentucky Derby:


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Sources: Kentucky Derby HISTORY


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