Why America Loves the Kentucky Derby

The Kentucky Derby began in 1875, as 10,000 spectators witnessed first-hand 15 thoroughbred horses run a 1.5 mile course. The next year, the course was adjusted to 1.25 miles.

Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr.

Many are unaware that the event was established by Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., the grandson of William Clark, the famed explorer of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Inspired by the Derby in England and horse races in France, Clark developed the Louisville Jockey Club in Louisville, Kentucky and in 1937 the racetrack Churchill Downs was coined — named after John and Henry Churchill, who offered up the land for the track.

Another fact that often gets lost in the mix is that between 1875 and 1902 African-American jockeys won 15 out of 28 races at the Kentucky Derby. In fact, African-American jockey Alonzo “Lonnie” Clayton became the youngest rider to with the derby at age 15.

In 1904, the very first thoroughbred owned by a woman, Laska Durnell, became an official Derby winner. To accomplish her goal of making her powerful horse Elwood a champion, Durnell hid her decision from her husband, trainer Charles Durnell. What may have been even more devastating to Charles Durnell’s male pride was the fact that his wife chose to employ the talents of female

Alonzo “Lonnie” Clayton

trainer Mrs. J.B. Prather. By the 1940s, women owners at the Derby became commonplace. Amazingly, in 1942, seven of the first eight finishers were owned by women.

Today, the Derby attracts more than 165,000 spectators and has become one of the most celebrated sporting events in the U.S. And it’s not all about the race itself — the Kentucky Derby is a place to be seen. Last year, the rich and famous were out in full-force, donning wears only appropriate for a day at the races.

Kentucky Derby Fun Facts

  • The Kentucky Derby trophy weights 56 ounces and is made of 14 and 18 carat gold. It stands 2 feet tall.
  • The very first horse to win the Derby in 1875 was named Bonaventure.
  • The first woman to ride in the Kentucky Derby was Diane Crump in 1969.
  • The original horseshoe atop the Derby use to point downward, but in 1924 was turned 180 degrees to point upward.
  • The least lucky post position is 15 — no horse and rider has ever won when starting there.
  • The Mint Julep is the official drink of the Derby and Early Times the official whiskey used in the much-loved Juleps.
  • The fastest Derby run was made by Secretariat in 1973, at 1:59.40.