The long history of a short race.
The term “America’s Pastime” is usually reserved for baseball, however, it could be argued that another sporting event should hold that title. Dating all the way back to 1875, the Kentucky Derby is the longest running sporting event in the United States, and, some might argue it’s not just a sporting event, but a staple in southern culture. Though, you don’t have to be southern to partake in its many traditions.
Over 150,000 people flock to Kentucky each year to participate in the many events leading up to the race, and it wouldn’t be Derby weekend without a Mint Julep, over-the-top headwear and “My Old Kentucky” home playing as the horses prepare for their big moment. Even those who aren’t in attendance gather to watch, engaging in the same traditions but from their own homes or lavish parties. And, though aptly dubbed “the most exciting two minutes in sports,” the Kentucky Derby has a long history.
Credit: Kentucky Derby Museum
Over 150,000 people flock to Kentucky each year to participate in the many events leading up to the race, and it wouldn’t be Derby weekend without a Mint Julep, over-the-top headwear and “My Old Kentucky” home playing as the horses prepare for their big moment.
Three years before the first Kentucky Derby took place, Meriwether Lewis Clark, grandson of American explorer William Clark, visited England and attended the Epsom Derby. Inspired by what he had experienced, he had brought back something significant from his trip: a vision. Clark set out to bring a horse racing event to the United States, and with the help of his uncles John and Henry Churchill who gifted him eighty acres of land in Louisville, Kentucky, his vision was soon to become reality – and Churchill Downs was soon to be introduced to the world.
To raise money for construction, Clark sold membership subscriptions to the track. He was able to sell 320 memberships at $100 each, raising $32,000 to develop a clubhouse, grandstand, Porter’s Lodge and six stables, all of which are still standing today.
YOU MAY ALSO LIKE: CELEBRATE AMERICAN HISTORY IN COLONIAL WILLIAMSBURG
Over the years, the track has continued to grow and now sits on 147 acres. In 1895, the ICONIC Twin Spires were constructed as part of a new grandstand and were actually not a part of the original plan. The architect added the two towers to the otherwise simple structure, stating that he felt like the structure needed something that would give it a “striking appearance.” Since their construction, the Twin Spires have become the focal point and unofficial symbol of the grounds, their image featured on souvenirs and collectible items.
Credit: Kentucky Derby Museum
Churchill Downs officially opened for its first race day on May 17, 1875 – the very first Kentucky Derby. The 1.5 mile long race had 10,000 spectators and was won by 3-year-old colt Aristides. Since its opening day, Churchill Downs has brought in a record-breaking crowd of over 170,000 people and it holds the record for the longest-running, continuous sporting event in the United States.
Even when the Great Depression, World War I and II took place throughout history, the Kentucky Derby remained constant. In 1945, horse racing was banned across the nation due to Jerry Byrnes, former director of the War of Mobilization, finding it to be a waste of resources. Byrnes had also come close to banning the sport two years earlier in 1943, but the powers of horse racing prevailed; that year there were travel restrictions due to World War II and no out-of-town tickets were sold, but still, 65,000 attended the event.
YOU MAY ALSO LIKE: CHATTING POLO, FASHION AND ROYAL ENCOUNTERS WITH ASHLEY BUSCH
Not until Germany surrendered on May 7, 1945, ending World War II, was the ban lifted, and the Kentucky Derby took place shortly after on June 9 the same year. Despite the short notice and a recent war ending preventing people from traveling, there were 75,000 people in attendance, proving again that the Kentucky Derby is an important tradition to many Americans.
There have only been two other times that the Derby was held in a month other than May: 1901 and 2020. In 1901, the race took place on April 29 instead of the first Saturday of May and in 2020, the event was pushed back to September 5 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Though there have been slight changes made over the years, the Kentucky Derby has been able to embrace changing times and remain true to Clark’s original vision.