The Beginnings and the Traditions of the Kentucky Derby

Photo Courtesy of Velo Steve

Photo Courtesy of Velo Steve

It is known as “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports.”  Thousands gather at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky on the first Saturday in May every year to watch “The Run for the Roses.”  Women wear their finest clothes, accessories, and hats. Spectators sip on Mint Juleps and eat burgoo.  A band plays “My Old Kentucky Home” before the event. This can only be the Kentucky Derby, a horse race that has run on Kentucky soil since 1875.  The race has the distinction of the longest running sporting event in America and has not missed a year, even during World Wars I & II.  Let’s take a look at how this race came to be and some of the traditions of one of the greatest international sporting events.

Meriwether Lewis Clark, grandson of William Clark of the famous Lewis and Clark expedition, traveled to Europe in 1872.  While in England, Clark witnessed the Epsom Derby, a one mile and a half horse race.  Afterwards, Clark made his way to Paris where he met a group of horse racing fans called the French Jockey Club.  This club organized and ran the Grand Prix de Paris, the most famous horse race in France at the time.  Clark’s experiences in England and France fueled a desire for a similar race in his home state of Kentucky.

Soon after his return to the Bluegrass state, Clark met with John and Henry Churchill, two of his uncles.  The uncles gave Clark land near Louisville to build a racing facility.  In order to raise funds for the construction of the facility, Clark organized the Louisville Jockey Club (LJC), a group of local race fans.  Clark and the LJC raised the funds to build a race track and the first Kentucky Derby, named after the Epsom race, took place on May 17, 1875.  About 10,000 spectators saw Aristides finish first out of 15, three-year-old thoroughbred horses racing for one and a half miles.  Clark limited the race to three-year-old horses because this was the tradition of the great European races such as the Epsom Derby and the Grand Prix de Paris.  European horse enthusiasts believed the three-year-old horses comprised the best group of racers because they were physically mature enough for high speed around a track and still raw enough to offer the element of surprise so essential to wagering.  Horses develop full physical maturity at age four and at that time it would be clear which horses were dominant and which were not.  So horses four years and older lacked the element of surprise necessary for wagering.

The race track became known as “Churchill Downs” in 1883, and the legendary Twin Spires became a Derby fixture in 1895.  Beginning in 1896 the race became the mile and a quarter competition that it is today.  Racing officials believed a mile and a half distance too long for three-year-old thoroughbreds to run in May.  Also that year, Derby winner Ben Brush became the first victor to receive a floral arrangement of roses, white and pink.  The red rose became the official flower of the Derby in 1904, but the first horse to receive the now-famous garland of 554 red roses was Burgoo King in 1932.

Regret became the first filly to win the Derby in 1915, while Sir Barton, in 1919, won the Derby then became the first horse to win the Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing—the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes.  Bill Corum, a sports columnist for the New York Evening Journal and the New York Journal-American, used the phrase “Run for the Roses” for the first time in 1925.  The first Saturday in May became the permanent date for the Derby in 1931, and in 1940, New Orleans Times-Picayune writer Bill Keefe described the Derby for the first time as, “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports.”

Diane Crump took the reins as the first female jockey in 1970, finishing 15th out of 18 horses in the field.  Finally, Secretariat recorded the fastest time in Derby history in 1973 with a 1:59:40 finish on the way to the Triple Crown.

Certainly spectators watching Secretariat’s historical run enjoyed many of the Derby traditions, including Mint Juleps.  The official drink of the Derby consists of bourbon, mint and sugar.  Fans may have also been eating a bowl of burgoo, a thick stew of beef, chicken, pork and vegetables.  While sipping Mint Juleps and eating burgoo, many of the ladies in the audience undoubtedly wore lavish outfits with large hats.  Of course, while Secretariat paraded before the grandstands before the race, fans heard the University of Louisville band’s rendition of Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home.”

The 143nd version of “The Run for the Roses” or “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports” takes place on May 6.  If you can’t be at Churchill Downs, celebrate William Clark’s brainchild somewhere with at least a Mint Julep and a bowl of burgoo.  Big hats, red roses, and a CD of “My Old Kentucky Home” are optional.