The History of the Kentucky Derby

Aside from the glamorous outfits and the huge hats which look more like headdresses, the Kentucky Derby is a meeting of the best thoroughbreds in the entire country. Described as “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports”, this Grade I stakes race is both elegant and exhilarating all at the same time. The origins of the Kentucky Derby date back to the late 1700s. Held in Louisville, Kentucky during the first Saturday of the month of May, the derby is a culmination of the entire two-week Kentucky Derby Festival.

All throughout Kentucky, horse racing as a sport was already prevalent even during the 1700s. In fact, there already were numerous race courses built all over the state during that time. However, it was because of Col. M. Lewis Clark’s love for the sport that really revolutionized the Kentucky Derby. In 1872, Clark visited the Epsom Derby in England, a race that has been in existence since 1780. After this, he went on to visit the Grand Prix de Paris in France. This particular race was organized by the French Jockey Club and is now known as the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.

After these pilgrimages, Clark went on to establish the Louisville Jockey Club with the benefit of raising funds in order to create state-of-the-art racing facilities outside of the city’s vicinity. The track that he would later establish would be then named as the Churchill Downs, named after the colonel’s relatives, John and Henry Churchill, who offered the use of their land where the racetrack was built. By 1937, Churchill Downs became incorporated.

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Originally, the racetrack for the Kentucky Derby spanned one and a half miles just like the racetracks for the Epson Derby and the Grand Prix de Paris. However, this distance was modified to 1 and ¼ miles back in 1896. The racetrack opened on May 17, 1875 with around 10,000 people in attendance. The entire audience got to watch fifteen three-year-old thoroughbred horses battle it out for the first Derby. During the first ever Kentucky Derby, it was Oliver Lewis, an African-American jockey which helped the colt Aristides to win the inaugural race. Aristides was coached by Ansel Williamson, a future Hall of Famer. Still with Lewis as the jockey, Aristides went on to successfully place second in the Belmont Stakes.

It wasn’t just the caliber of the races that was set during this very first race. During the inaugural race, attendees started the practice of sipping Mint Juleps with the women wearing long, colorful dresses, and large hats while carrying cute umbrellas.

Joseph Sanderson, the writer, shares the most interesting articles about horse racing. Among his works include several insights about Kentucky Derby. Learn more and visit,

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