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No ordinary horseplay

As the sport world once again turns its attention to the hallowed one-and-a-quarter-mile at Churchill Down, Roger Norum takes a look back at the history of the world’s most famous horse race – the Kentucky Derby

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Affectionately known as the most exciting two minutes in sports, the Kentucky Derby is one of most famous, most prestigious and longest running sporting events in the world. Each year drawing some 150,000 live spectators (and millions more via telecasts), the Derby is probably the world’s best-known horse race. It has also played a focal role in the history of racing in America.

On account of its farming traditions, the bluegrass belt of America has long been known for producing superior racehorses. Horse racing in Kentucky dates all the way back to 1783, when locals would race steeds on Market Street in downtown Louisville. In order to free up city thoroughfares, private tracks were subsequently built on and around local farms to allow for more effective training and racing of colts. The Kentucky Derby itself, however – in addition to the other big-name US horse races that followed – was actually modelled on the great traditions of equine competition in Great Britain and Europe.

The first hurdles
During his travels to the British Isles and the continent in the early 1870s, 26-year-old Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr. – grandson to William Clark of Lewis and Clark expedition fame – spent some time visiting the organisers at the Epsom Derby and Grand Prix de Paris races. These most prestigious of the Europe’s horse races had already become part of the fundament of high society across the Atlantic, and Clark saw this pedigree as a way of achieving his dream of bringing high-class horse racing to the US.

Once Clark returned to the States, he set up the Louisville Jockey Club both to showcase Kentucky’s horse breeding industry and to fundraise for the construction of a proper new horse racing facility outside the city. To finance the building of the track – along with a clubhouse, grandstand, porter’s lodge and six stables – Clark sold 320 membership subscriptions to the track at $100 each. The 80 acres of land for the track, located three miles south of downtown, was donated by Clark’s uncles John and Henry Churchill (whence “Churchill Downs”, the name of the track to this day).

The inaugural Derby was raced several years later in May, 1875, when some 10,000 spectators watched 15 thoroughbreds run around a 1.5 mile course. African-American jockey Oliver Lewis rode a chestnut colt named Aristides to victory in 2 minutes 37 3/4 seconds; its owner, Hal Price McGrath, took home a vaunted purse of $2,850.

Over the decades, the track changed hands several times, resulting in a range of improvements and enhancements made to both race and track. A new grandstand was constructed in 1895, complemented by two large twin spires atop the roof – ornaments that have since become the symbol of the Derby itself. This course distance was shortened by 0.25 mile a year later to facilitate horses running in the early spring (the Derby is restricted to 3-year-old horses, meaning a colt only ever has one shot at immortality). In 1908, pari-mutuel machines were installed in the stands and the minimum wager was reduced from $5 to $2.

The 20th Century and beyond
As early as the 1920s, the Derby had become North America’s best-known horse race, drawing top thoroughbreds from all across the country. It spawned other competitions, too: in 1930, sportswriter Charles Hatton coined the term “Triple Crown” to refer to a single horse consecutively running the Derby, the Preakness Stakes in Maryland and the Belmont Stakes in New York. The race was first telecast in 1952, while a “film patrol” was installed two years later in order to allow for semi-instant replays for race officials.

Since then, the financial and wagering sides of the Kentucky Derby has become seriously big business. In 2004, jockeys were allowed to wear corporate advertising logos on their clothing. A year later, award distribution was modified such that horses finishing fifth would receive a share of the purse (previously only the first four finishers did so). Today, Churchill Downs has become a world leader in simulcast wagering and combined betting, with the single day of the Kentucky Derby now taking in as much as $100,000,000. Similar to US sporting events such as the Super Bowl and NCAA basketball, the Derby unites casual fans of sport in general, inspiring otherwise gambling-averse people to bet on horses.

In the days of the original Epsom Derby stakes, large crowds of people would descend on the town from London not just to see the race but to enjoy other entertainment as well – magicians, clowns and minstrels who would occupy the crowds in the fairground. This tradition has since made its way over to the States. For two weeks before the Derby, the city puts on the Kentucky Derby Festival; a series of events that include marathons, balloon and steamboat races and Thunder Over Louisville, which is the largest annual fireworks display in North America.

As with many legendary sporting events, many other Derby traditions have developed over the years. At each final ceremony, for example, the winner is bestowed with a lush garland blanket of 554 red roses – hence the moniker “The Run for the Roses”. Women often appear in long dresses donning large hats, and usually remain the talk of the town for weeks afterwards (the extravagant umbrellas women used to carry, however, have since been outlawed at the track). The highest of high society members and most dapper of spectators tend to occupy the VVIP “Millionaire’s Row” box seats, high up by the spires.

A more casual, down-at-heel crowd, meanwhile, heads for the Infield – the flat, grassy area just inside the track that has mediocre views of the race but sees some serious drinking and partying before, during and afterwards. And the Mint Julep, iced bourbon with mint and sugary syrup, has remained the drink of the race for more than a century.

As a consummate national tradition, the Kentucky Derby has become as American as apple pie and baseball. But the race’s heroes are not just its devoted riders and illustrious spectators. The fastest record thus far is one minute 59 2/5 seconds, set in 1973 by Secretariat, a Triple Crown winner whose hallowed image adorned the covers of Time, Newsweek, and Sports Illustrated.

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