If there’s a “queen of horse racing,” surely the Kentucky Derby qualifies as the first choice to wear the crown.
Run on the first Saturday in May, the Kentucky Derby tests the mettle and stamina of three year old thoroughbreds at Churchill Downs, the fabled track in Lexington, Kentucky.
Churchill Downs was built by Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. who envisioned a race that would rival the Epsom Derby run in England. In 1872 he traveled across the Atlantic to study the racecourses and races in England and France, and on his return to the United States formed the Louisville Jockey Club and Driving Park Association.
The group raised $32,000 by selling 320 membership subscriptions to fund the track’s construction, which included a clubhouse, grandstand, stables and porter’s lodge. The first Kentucky Derby was run at Churchill Downs on May 17, 1875.
The track didn’t show its first profit until 1903. But as the Derby grew in popularity, Churchill Downs did too. Churchill Downs went through a number of ownership groups over the years, even closing and abandoning racing in 1942 before resurfacing as Churchill Downs Incorporated. Within a half dozen years, the Churchill Downs Foundation was formed to handle the races.
The first national telecast of the Kentucky Derby took place on May 3, 1952, (in black and white, of course). The next year more seating was added to the grandstand and the following year replays were made available to racing officials.
Renovation to the facilities took place between 1959 and 1966, including the construction of a museum and the addition of the fourth and fifth floors of the Sky Terrace “Millionaire’s Row.”
In 1984, a five year, $25 million renovation included the Matt Winn turf course, paddock construction, clubhouse and barn area improvements and Skye Terrace updating.
In 2002 Churchill Downs began a $121 million renovation that included 64 luxury suites and meeting areas on top of the existing grandstand, the demolition of part of the clubhouse and an expanded Turf Club, 15 luxury suites, premium outdoor third-floor boxes, indoor box seats, a new media center, and new dining and entertainment areas.
Today, the Kentucky Derby is the first race in the Triple Crown of horse racing, consisting of the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness (run in Pimlico, Maryland) and the Belmont (run in New York). Only 11 horses have persevered and won the Triple Crown.
The Kentucky Derby is recognized as one of the most famous and prestigious horse races in the world, according to Jennifer Stevens, communications manager for Churchill Downs.
“It’s become more than just a horse race where 20 horses go to the gate and run a mile-and-a-quarter,” she said. “It’s become a destination and an event of the magnitude that people dream about coming here to see the twin spires and be a part of that day.”
The Kentucky Derby has become a tradition with women who wear elegant, unusual, gaudy or fashionable hats for the race. Dressing lavishly and elegantly also is a Derby tradition.
Stevens noted that the Derby attracts a wide cross section of people, “from the very young to the very old, and from those who are here for the social element, to the racing fans and the young folks who tend to populate the infield on Derby day.”
Churchill Downs accommodates approximately 150,000 people on Derby day, with more than 60,000 of them cramming into the infield. Gates open at 8 am and the start of the race generally happens around 6:30 pm.
“One of the things that’s helped the Derby is the focus on tradition and the time-honored things that have carried on since its first running in 1875,” Stevens pointed out. “Some elements like the blanket of roses for the winning horse and the societal aspects of the day, I think, are here to stay.”
Triple Crown Winners
Many have tried, but few have been successful. In the Kentucky Derby’s history, only 11 horses have gone on to win horse racing’s triple crown — the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont. Right: Assault, 1946 winner.
• 1919 — Sir Barton
• 1930 — Gallant
• 1935 — Omaha
• 1937 — War Admiral
• 1941 — Whirlaway
• 1943 — Count Fleet
• 1946 — Assault
• 1948 — Citation
• 1973 — Secretariat
• 1977 — Seattle Slew
• 1978 — Affirmed