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7 Things You Should Know About the Kentucky Derby

Kentucky Derby Facts
Jamie Squire/Rob Carr/Jamie Squire, Getty Images

One of the sporting world’s most anticipated events is the Kentucky Derby, set to open its gates this Saturday for the 138th running of the classic race, making it the oldest sporting event in American sports history.

Every inch of Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky is steeped in hallowed tradition that has made it one of the most iconic sporting events on the calendar, from the massive infield to the endless supply of mint juleps in silver cups. These traditions are so old and revered that you can argue American sports fans have made the Kentucky Derby more respected than the Super Bowl, the Masters and even the World Series. So how did it get its start and who or what shaped its many sights and traditions that have made it the jewel in horse racing’s highly coveted Triple Crown?

Where did Churchill Downs get its name?

Kentucky Derby - Churchill Downs
Rob Carr, Getty Images

The famous track that hosts the oldest race in sports history got its start well before the first inaugural run of the Kentucky Derby. The first recorded horse races in Kentucky date back to 1783 on downtown Market Street and later in 1789 in public places like The Commons, a long stretch of “park-like” grass that made for a perfect racetrack for horses. These races led to the formation of more organized races over concerns for the public’s safety and the famed Kentucky Jockey Club in 1809.

The track that would host the famous Kentucky Derby wouldn’t come to fruition until a century later after Kentucky’s first public horse race. Land owners John and Henry Churchill sold a stretch of property to their nephew Col. M. Lewis Clark in 1874 after declining stock farms devalued the land for agriculture. Clark turned it into a racetrack and later, a newspaper reporter for the Louisville Commercial covering the ninth Kentucky Derby dubbed the track “Churchill Downs.”

How did the Kentucky Derby start?

Kentucky Derby - Louisville Jockey Club
Mike Powell/Allsport

Col. M. Clark Lewis, grandson of explorer William Clark of Lewis and Clark fame, toured Europe and the UK in his early 20s and became a dedicated student of the art of horse racing. He returned to Louisville to set down roots and wanted to bring the organized sport he fell in love with to his native land. In 1875, he formed the Louisville Jockey Club and created three races by basing them on three famous races in England: the English St. Leger, the Epsom Oaks and the Epsom Derby.

Who won the first Kentucky Derby?

Kentucky Derby - Oliver Lewis and Astrides, first winners
EquinArt Creations

The inaugural run of the Kentucky Derby on May 17, 1875 awarded the first first-place trophy to a horse named Aristides and his African-American jockey Oliver Lewis. Even though racism and segregation were rampant during these times, many black jockeys rode horses in races. In fact, 13 of the 15 jockeys who rode in the first Kentucky Derby were black.

How did it become the “Run for the Roses”?

Kentucky Derby - roses
Al Bello, Getty Images

The association of roses with the race are almost as old as the race itself. The first derby day saw a number of very posh parties leading to the opening of the starting gate and roses were handed out to the lovely ladies in attendance. Clark loved the tradition so much that he adopted the rose as the race’s official flower. Then in 1896, the tradition was expanded to the racetrack when jockey Willie Simms and his horse Ben Brush received a beautiful bed of white and pink roses for winning the race. They switched to red roses in 1904 when the state of Kentucky made the red rose its official flower. The race received the nickname “Run for the Roses” in 1925 from New York sports writer Bill Corum.

Why do they drink mint juleps at the Kentucky Derby?

Kentucky Derby - Mint Juleps
Jamie Squire, Getty Images

Actually, it’s the glass that the Kentucky Derby’s most popular drink is served in that helped make it such an iconic part of the race rather than the drink itself. Bourbon and whiskey-based drinks like the mint julep have long been associated with horse racing and the Kentucky Derby was no exception. The first glasses served to patrons at the race in 1938 were just water glasses, but they were so popular that they started disappearing at an alarming rate. So they started charging patrons a quarter if they wanted to keep the glasses as a souvenir.

Race organizers commissioned different styles and types of glasses over the years for patrons to purchase on race day. Churchill Downs was the only place in town to buy the special derby glasses until 1974 when several local retailers made their own to sell to the tourists.

Why is it the first leg of the Triple Crown?

Kentucky Derby - Triple Crown
Andy Lyons, Getty Images

The three races in the Triple Crown (the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore and the Belmont Stakes in New York) first ran together after the horse Gallant Fox won all three in 1930. The news prompted a New York Times sports reporter to dub the winner as a “Triple Crown hero,” a term taken from another series of horse races in England.

The race at Churchill Downs always traditionally ran first in the Triple Crown, but the Kentucky Derby was rescheduled in 1923 to the second Saturday in May to prevent a conflict with the Preakness. It continued to run second until 1932 where it has only run second twice since. The moniker Triple Crown helped earn the series of races more prestige in America as the nation’s premiere horse races.

What horse posted the fastest time at the Kentucky Derby?

Perhaps the most famous horse to grace the stage at the Kentucky Derby happened in 1973 when Secretariat posted the fastest time ever at 1:59 and 2/5ths of a second. Not only has his time gone almost 30 years without being broken, but he also took the Triple Crown. His time was almost beaten in 2001 by Monarchos, who went from 13th place to first en route to winning. His time failed to match Secretariat’s by less than a second.

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