Numbered among the world’s most famous horse races, the Kentucky Derby has be aptly nicknamed "The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports". Scheduled each year on the first Saturday in May, red roses, mint juleps and elegant hats are as much a part of the festivities at Churchill Downs as are the horses themselves. The race closes out the two-week-long Kentucky Derby Festival.
Since it was first settled, Kentucky’s Bluegrass Region has a history of producing superior race horses. Located within central portion of the state, the region boasts one of America’s most genteel and elegant landscapes. Stretching through 15 counties and across 4,000 square miles, the countryside is dotted with Tara-style manor houses and classic oak plank fences. Housed in cupola-topped barns, former Derby winners are transformed into four-legged gold mines as they now assume the role of well-paid studs.
Desiring to showcase Kentucky’s horse breeding industry, in 1872 Meriwether Lewis Clark (grandson of famed explorer William Clark) traveled to England to witness the Epsom Derby in the company of Admiral Rous. This race was an annual event dating back to 1780. Following that, he traveled to France. In 1836, racing enthusiasts had founded the French Jockey Club in Paris and organized the Grand Prix de Paris, now known as the famous Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. Here Clark was the guest of Vicompte Darn, then vice-president of the French Jockey Club.
Clark returned to his home in Kentucky with plans to build a racing facility. On May 27, 1874, the first announcement of the future track was reported in the Courier-Journal. Objections were quickly raised about the proposed track; due to the fact the Falls City Racing Association has already proposed building a track just east of downtown Louisville near the river. On June 18, 1874, Clark and a number of prominent gentlemen from Louisville held a meeting at Galt House to draw up the necessary articles of incorporation for the Louisville Jockey Club and Driving Park Association. The papers were filed on June 20th.
Clark now needed to raise the funds for land on which to build the track. To do so, he sold 320 membership subscriptions at a cost of $100 each; thereby raising $32,000. With the necessary funds in hand, Clark leased 80 acres of land, located three miles south of downtown Louisville. The land belonged to two of Clark’s uncles, John and Henry Churchill. Once the land was acquired, the track quickly began to take shape. In time, a clubhouse, grandstand, porter’s lodge and six stables were constructed.
As he prepared for the track’s inauguration, Clark devised three major stakes races – the Kentucky Derby, Kentucky Oaks and Clark Handicap. He patterned these races after England’s premiere races – the Epsom Derby, Epson Oaks and St. Leger Stakes. The three races established by Clark have continued to be run since their debut in 1875, with one slight change. Beginning in 1953, the running of the Clark Handicap was moved to the fall rather than in spring.
The grand opening of Clark’s Louisville race track occurred on May 17, 1875. Four races were scheduled to be run that day, with the featured race named the Kentucky Derby. Approximately 10,000 people watched as 15 three-year-old horses ran the race. At the time, the race’s distance was 1.5 miles, equal to the length of the Grand Prix de Paris. The first Kentucky Derby was won by a three-year-old chestnut colt named Astrides. He was owned by H. P. McGrath and ridden by black jockey, Oliver Lewis.
In the fall of 1894, Churchill Downs underwent a facelift and expansion, with construction being completed by spring, 1895. At a cost of $100,000, a new grandstand was constructed which boasted two spires on its roof. Nothing more than an architectural element, the twin spires would in time become the track’s symbol. In 1902, Churchill Downs was acquired by Colonel Matt Winn of Louisville. Under his leadership, the track soon prospered and the Kentucky Derby became the preeminent thoroughbred horse race in America.
The nicknamed of the Kentucky Derby is the “Run for the Roses”. It is derived from the fact that after the race, the winning horse is awarded a garland of red roses. The phrase was coined by New York sports columnist Bill Corum, who would later become president of Churchill Downs. In 1883, New York socialite E. Berry Wall presented roses to all the ladies at the post-Derby party. Meriwether Clark was in attendance at that party and after witnessing Wall’s actions, decided to make the rose the Derby’s official flower.
On May 6, 1896, Ben Brush was the first Derby winner to be draped with roses. Since 1996, the Garland of Roses awarded to the winning horse has been shipped to Danville, Kentucky following the event for freeze-drying. It is a common practice for the owners of the winning horses to save a rose from the garland and have it dipped in silver as a method of preservation.
Today’s Kentucky Derby comprises the first part of the United States Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing. This is followed by the Preakness Stakes (held on the third Saturday in May at the Pimlico Race Course in Maryland) and the Belmont Stakes (held five weeks after the Kentucky Derby at Belmont Park in Elmont, New York).
In 1919, Sir Barton became the first equine to win all three races. The next occurrence took place in 1930 with Gallant Fox the winner. While describing Fox’s win, sportswriter Charles Hatton coined the term “Triple Crown”. Two years later, the running of the Kentucky Derby was moved from mid-May to the first Saturday in May, in an effort to create a specific schedule for the three races.
Over the years, the timeframe in which a horse needed to complete the race continued to shrink. In 1973, a record was set which has yet to be broken. That year, racing legend Secretariat completed the Derby in 1 minute, 59 2/5 seconds. He went on to outpace all other horses during the Preakness and the Belmont; thereby adding his name to the roster of Triple Crown winners.
Starting order for the Kentucky Derby, from closest to the rail on the inside of the track to the far outside, is determined by random selection known as a "pill pull." As the entry blank for each horse is pulled, simultaneously a numbered pill is selected. The number on the pill determines the number of the stall that particular horse will break from at the starting gate. Stall position can have a bearing on the horse’s chance for winning, with the length of the race determining the better location. For a sprint, which involves one loop of the track, a number closer to the outside edge is favored. If the race requires two passes around the track, fingers are crossed for a position close to the inside rail.
In 2004, the Kentucky Derby began to look more like the Indianapolis 500. That was the first year, following a court order, jockeys were now allowed to display the logos of corporate sponsors on their clothing.
The Kentucky Derby Festival plays host to more than 70 different events as upwards of 1.5 million people from all over the world gather in Louisville. Among them are the Pegasus Parade and steamboat races. Event participants come from groups representing all ages, educational backgrounds, geographic locations and income levels.
Thunder Over Louisville kicks off the festival’s opening ceremonies. As the largest annual fireworks show in North America, the massive pyrotechnic display and air show takes place on the Ohio River and can be seen from miles away. Spectators line up along the Kentucky and Indiana sides of the river, numbering upwards of 500,000 individuals. Needless to say, the economic impact on the community during the festival is massive.
Several traditions are woven into the history of the Kentucky Derby.
Mint juleps have been served at Churchill Downs since the race track opened its doors in 1875. In 1938, the beverage sold for 38¢ and was dispensed in a souvenir glass. Between 1938 and 1952 less than 100,000 julep glasses were manufactured for the Kentucky Derby. In February 2014 - 500,472 glasses were produced for the May 4th event.
A cocktail which originated in the South, the mint julep was introduced to Washington, D.C. by Kentucky Senator Henry Clay, and sports a bourbon base. The term “julep” is derived from a Persian word گلاب (Golâb) which means “rose water” (quite fitting for serving at the Run for the Roses). Composed of four ingredients – bourbon, water, sugar and spearmint leaf – it is one of the family of drinks called “smashes”. The term refers to the fact the mint is crushed during preparation in an effort to release essential oils which help to intensify the cocktail’s flavor.
Sterling silver julep cups were introduced during the 1951 Derby. The brain-child of Colonel Matt Winn, he felt there should be a useful souvenir for Kentucky Derby attendees. The 12 ounce cup features a small horseshoe on the front.
In 2006, Churchill Downs began to offer custom-made mint juleps for its better-heeled clientele. Priced at $1,000, these extra-premium, custom-made cocktails are served in gold-plated cups with silver straws. Proceeds from the sale of the “gold” cocktails are used to support various charitable causes dedicated to retired race horses.
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Straw hats with wide brims are fashion statements which date back to the early years of the Derby. Atop the heads of the day’s well-heeled spectators, the tradition began when Colonel Clark sought to transform the image of the racetrack. Originally regarded as a place of ill-repute, due to the fact racing went hand-in-hand with drinking and gambling, the racetrack was considered an inappropriate place for women and children.
Clark had heard speculation from the media that if he could transform Churchill Downs into a place of fashion, all the investment that had gone into the world-class venue would pay off. Seeking to meet that challenge, Clark quickly brought together a number of high society women. Taking them door-to-door, the women told their friends, “We’re going to have a picnic at the racetrack.” Clark’s efforts would later be described by the New York Times as the “brilliant assemblage of ladies and gentlemen” responsible for cramming center field with carriages. Two years later, the first international celebrity attended. The presence of Polish actress Helena Modjeska served to enhance the image of the Derby and paved the way for the more grand affairs which transformed the day into an event where fashion reigned in equal proportion to the horses.
Ellen Goldstein of the Fashion Institute of Technology was quoted to say, “Women coordinated their hats, dresses, bags, shoes and parasols. To go to a horse racing event was really a regal affair. It was just as important as going to a cocktail party or a ball . . . the upper echelon, the high society would definitely be ordering in advance from Paris and from Rome and from Milan, and really looking for something that was the best of the best.”
In 1925, the spirits of high society was definitely dampened as a disastrous downpour occurred during the race. In his column, a Washington Post reporter elaborated on the extensive damage done to the women’s clothing by the rain before he even mentioned Flying Ebony, the black stallion who won the race. “Leghorn hats, pink Milan hats, large white felt hats and just hats drooped; flimsy dresses clung closely to their humiliated wearers and fancy shoes soaked up more water than there was room inside them comfortable,” the reporter wrote. “When the rain finally did cease, it was all too late—thousands of dollars worth of beautiful clothing had been ruined and thousands of equally beautiful women were miserably uncomfortable.”
During the 1970s and 80s, the devotion exhibited by Derby attendees to fancy headwear began to drop off, but it did pick up some in the 90s. A significant surge later occurred, largely due to 2011’s royal wedding, offering an upturn in business for exclusive milliners like Philip Treacy and David Shilling. Linda Pagan, owner of a New York boutique known as The Hat Shop, has made hats for Derby attendees during the last 18 years and states the race is now one of her business’s most important events. “Serious race women start thinking about their outfits in February.” Hats purchased at her boutique range anywhere from $300 to $500 in price, with some going for as much as $2,000.
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Other notable events of Derby history include:
- Between the years 1875 and 1902, 15 of the 28 winning horses were ridden by black jockeys. One of them, Alonzo “Lonnie” Clayton, became the youngest jockey to win the Derby on May 11, 1892, when as a lad of 15, he rode Azra to victory.
- The first Derby winner to be owned by a woman was named Jake N Elwood. Owned by Laska Durnell, he won in 1904.
- Prior to 1915, all Derby winners had been male. That year, Harry Payne Whitney may well have found himself wondering if he would regret entering Regret in the Derby. In the end, he had no regrets when she became the first filly to receive the Derby’s rose blanket. To date, no filly has won the Triple Crown.
- The first foreign-bred entrée to win the Derby was English colt, Omar Khayyam. In 1916, Omar carried 13-1 odds as he moved from tenth place and overcame the race favorite, Ticket.
- The first nationally televised running of the Kentucky Derby occurred on May 3, 1952. As the size of the Derby’s viewing audience grew, so did the purse. Two years later, the total exceeded $100,000 for the first time.