The oldest continuously run sporting event in the United States, the Kentucky Derby is America's most famous horse race, rich in tradition and celebrated by racing fans throughout the world. In May, 1875, Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark, taking his lead from the English Derby at Epsom Downs, established the race for three-yearold thoroughbreds over a one-and-a-half-mile course (later reduced to a mile and a quarter). Attracting an annual crowd of more than 100,000 spectators, the Kentucky Derby has been called the "greatest two minutes in sports." It is also the first leg of racing's most sought-after goal, the Triple Crown, awarded to those rare horses who win at the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and at Belmont.
Although the idea for building a race track and attracting the best horses to a rich, classic race originated with Colonel Clark, a visionary promoter in his mid-twenties, the business and promotional talents that elevated the Derby to a race of international importance came from a Louisville tailor named Matt Winn, who began managing the failing track in 1902. As a boy, standing on his father's flat-bed truck, Matt had seen Aristides win the first Derby at the Churchill Downs race track in Louisville, Kentucky, and attended every single Derby after that—75 in all—before his death in 1949. The event received a boost in prestige in 1915 when Harry Payne Whitney agreed to run his filly Regret. She led from the start, becoming the only female thoroughbred to win the Derby until the 1980s, when Genuine Risk and Winning Colors duplicated the feat. After the race, Whitney remarked that he did not care whether or not Regret ever raced again. "She has won the greatest race in America," he said, "and I am satisfied." From then on, Winn was determined to keep the Kentucky Derby at that high level.
Racing historian Joe Estes has divided the Kentucky Derby story into three periods: 1875 to 1898, 1899-1914, and 1915 onwards, with the first period highlighted by the appearance at Churchill Downs of the finest American thoroughbreds, both from Kentucky and the great stables of the northeast. Though the purses were not large, owners were motivated to improve the breed of racehorses by competing with the best. One of the racing stars of this early period was Isaac Murphy, an African-American jockey who rode Buchanan to victory in 1884, Riley in 1890, and Kingman in 1891. His record of three Kentucky Derby wins was not equaled until 1930, when Earl Sande won on Gallant Fox, and it was not surpassed until 1948, when Eddie Arcaro won the fourth of his five Derbies on Citation. Murphy has been credited with the highest winning percentage of any jockey, 44 per cent. The significance of this phenomenal record is evident when compared with that of Eddie Arcaro, the greatest of modern era jockeys, whose lifetime winning average in a more competitive era was 22 per cent. Among the memorable horses of the first years were Hindoo, who had a string of 18 consecutive race victories that included the 1881 Derby; Ben Brush, who won the first mile-and-a-quarter Derby in 1896; and Plaudit, the winner in 1898.
From 1899 to 1914, the great stables in the northeast began shipping their horses to the American Derby at Washington Park in Chicago, and the Kentucky Derby became more of a local race. When a horse named Donerail won in 1913 and paid $184.90—the longest odds of any Derby winner in history—the classic race received some beneficial publicity, but it was not until 1915 that the modern era began, signaling the return of America's greatest racehorses to the "run for the roses." Racing fans remember such brilliant thorough-breds as Exterminator, Sir Barton, Zev, Black Gold, Bubbling Over, Gallant Fox, Twenty Grand, Cavalcade, Omaha, War Admiral, Whirlaway, Count Fleet, Assault, Citation, Swaps, Carry Back, Northern Dancer, Majestic Prince, Riva Ridge, Secretariat, and Seattle Slew.
The most famous of American racehorses, Man o' War, overwhelmingly voted the greatest horse of the first half of the twentieth century, did not run in the Kentucky Derby but did win the other two Triple Crown races. He only raced for two seasons (1919-29), but he won 20 of 21 races and established speed records at five tracks over various distances. He was such a compelling favorite that he raced at odds as short as 1-100. Retired to stud in late 1920, Man o' War sired 64 horses who ran in stakes races, one of his sons being War Admiral, winner of the 1937 Triple Crown. Gallant Fox, who won the Triple Crown in 1930, raced for two seasons, winning 11 of 17 starts. His winnings of $308,275 in 1930 held the single season record for 17 years until purses escalated after World War II. He sired Omaha, the Triple Crown winner in 1935, and numerous other successful horses. Gallant Fox and Omaha remain the only father-son combination to win the Triple Crown.
Whirlaway, a nervous and erratic animal with an unusually long tail, won the Triple Crown in 1941, and his record-breaking run in the Derby, ridden by Arcaro, stood for the next 24 years. Noted for spectacular stretch runs, he would either win gloriously or lose badly, compiling a record of 32 wins in 60 races, but he was the first horse to earn more than half a million dollars; Citation, the 1948 Triple Crown winner, was the first horse to win a full million. Native Dancer, the first outstanding horse whose major victories were seen on national television, finished second to Dark Star in the 1953 Kentucky Derby, marking his only defeat in a career of 22 races. At his death his offspring had won more than $4 million in purses. The first televised Derby was won in 1952 by Hill Gail.
In 1973 Secretariat became the first Triple Crown winner since Citation in 1948. An unusually large chestnut, 16 hands in height, he combined size with amazing speed. He was the first horse to run the Derby in less than two minutes, also setting a record for the final half-mile and quarter-mile. At Belmont he won by 31 lengths while establishing the track record of 2:24. In 1977, a "Cinderella" horse, Seattle Slew, became the first horse who, unbeaten in his racing career, also won the Triple Crown. Slew had been bought as a colt by Mickey and Karen Taylor and Jim and Sally Hill for the bargain-basement price of $17,500 in 1975. They sold him to a syndicate for the then-record sum of $12,000,000 in 1978, the year that Affirmed became the third Triple Crown winner of the 1970s, an amazing decade for racing.
Jockeys have played a prominent role in the history of the Kentucky Derby. Eddie Arcaro and Bill Hartack each won the classic race five times, and Willie Shoemaker rode into the winner's circle four times. During a remarkable seven years from 1958 through 1964 Shoemaker was America's leading moneymaking jockey. Angel Cordero joined the legendary Isaac Murphy and Earle Sande as a three-time winner in 1985. In 1970 Diane Crump made history as the first female jockey to ride in the Kentucky Derby. Raleigh Colston became the only person to own, train, and ride a Derby runner; he rode Searcher in the first Derby and owned and trained Colston, the third-place finisher in the 1911 race.
125 years later (its 125th anniversary is to be celebrated on the first Saturday in May, 2000), the race is still being contested on the same hallowed turf that the first Derby winner trod. The Kentucky Derby has thus entered a third century, firmly entrenched as a celebrated occasion in "the sport of Kings."
Chew, Peter. The Kentucky Derby: The First Hundred Years. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1974.
Kelley, Robert. Racing in America, 1937-59. New York, Jockey Club, 1960.
Longrigg, Roger. The History of Horse Racing. New York, Stein &Day, 1972.
Palmer, Joe H. This Was Racing. New York, Barnes, 1953.