The Kentucky Derby is a Grade 1 American stakes race held at Louisville, Kentucky’s Churchill Downs. This is the first time horses in the field have raced a distance of 1+1/4 miles (10 furlongs; 2,012 meters), and the race is run by three-year-old Thoroughbreds. Fillies carry 121 pounds (55 kilograms), and colts and geldings 126 pounds (57 kilograms).
The race, which is the first leg of the Triple Crown, is held every year on the first Saturday in May. The Derby is dubbed “The Run for the Roses” because the victorious horse is covered in rose petals. The race, which lasts for about two minutes, has also been dubbed “The Fastest Two Minutes in Sports” or “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports.” The two-week-long Kentucky Derby Festival takes place before it.
1875 was the first run of the race. In contrast to the other two races in the Triple Crown, the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, the Derby has been held every year since its inception. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and World War II in 1945, the race was rescheduled for later in the year.
In the US, the Derby is the horse race that receives the most attention and attendance.
Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr., the grandson of William Clark from the Lewis and Clark expedition, visited Epsom, Surrey, in 1872. Epsom was home to the annual Derby, which dates back to 1780. After that, Clark traveled to Paris, France, where the French Jockey Club was founded in 1863 by a group of racing enthusiasts. The Grand Prix de Paris, the best race in France at the time, was organized by them at Longchamp. After moving back to Kentucky, Clark founded the Louisville Jockey Club to generate funds for the construction of first-rate racetracks outside of the city. The racetrack was given its name, Churchill Downs, in honor of John and Henry Churchill, who donated the land for it. In 1937, the naming became official.
The Kentucky Derby was originally run at 1+1⁄2 miles (12 furlongs; 2.4 km), the same distance as the Epsom Derby. In 1896, the length was changed to 1+1⁄4 miles (10 furlongs; 2 km). An estimated 10,000 spectators watched a field of 15 three-year-old horses compete in the inaugural Derby on May 17, 1875. Aristides, a colt trained by future Hall of Famer Ansel Williamson, won the first Derby under jockey Oliver Lewis. Lewis rode Aristides to a second-place finish in the Belmont Stakes later that year.
Once a successful track, the track experienced financial difficulties as a result of a long-lasting horseman boycott related to gambling, which kept it out of the elite races until the Winn era (see below). The New Louisville Jockey Club was incorporated in 1894 with additional funding and better facilities. Even so, the company failed until 1902, when Col. Matt Winn of Louisville led a syndicate that bought the building. Churchill Downs flourished under Winn, and the Kentucky Derby went on to become the premier stakes race in North America for three-year-old thoroughbred horses.
Owners of thoroughbred horses started entering their winning Derby horses in two additional races. These two are the Belmont Stakes, held in Elmont, New York, and the Preakness Stakes, held at the Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore. Huge purses were up for grabs in all three races, and Sir Barton was the first horse to win them all in 1919. The phrase “Triple Crown,” however, was not used for an additional eleven years. Sportswriter Charles Hatton popularized the expression in the United States in 1930 after Gallant Fox became the second horse to win all three races.
The inaugural live radio coverage of the Kentucky Derby debuted on WHAS and WGN in Chicago on May 16, 1925. The first-ever Kentucky Derby television coverage aired on May 7, 1949, and was produced by Louisville’s NBC affiliate, WAVE-TV. This coverage was sent to NBC as a kinescope newsreel recording for a national broadcast after it was broadcast live in the Louisville market. The first-ever national television coverage of the Kentucky Derby aired from WHAS-TV, a CBS affiliate at the time, on May 3, 1952.
In 2019, the Derby started to offer $3 million in purse money. The purse increase was attributed by Churchill Downs officials to the popularity of the historical race wagering terminals at their Derby City Gaming facility in Louisville. In 1996, the Derby offered a $1 million purse; in 2005, that amount was doubled to $2 million.
Jockeys were allowed to wear corporate advertising logos on their clothing for the first time at the 2004 Kentucky Derby, thanks to a court order.
Since 2002, Norman Adams has created the logo for the Kentucky Derby. Yum! Brands, Inc., a fast-food chain based in Louisville, announced on February 1, 2006, that it would sponsor the race and rename it “The Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands.” Woodford Reserve took Yum! Brands’ place as the presenting sponsor in 2018.
The Horse Deaths
Twelve horses were euthanized at Churchill Downs, the site of the world-famous horse race, in the weeks preceding and following the event due to injuries sustained during races or training sessions.
Freezing Point and Chloe’s Dream, two horses that sustained injuries in undercard races, are among the deceased.
The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority has announced additional safety and health measures in response to the deaths, including more thorough post-entry screenings of horses to identify those who are more likely to sustain injuries. Additionally, it will instruct its Integrity and Welfare Unit to take hair and blood samples from each deceased person for use in future investigations.
An inquiry into 12 horse fatalities at the renowned Churchill Downs racetrack revealed no connection between the track and the incidents; however, the report raised questions about certain horses’ elevated risk because of the regularity and rhythm of their workout regimens.
Analysis of training histories did indicate an increased risk profile for some of the horses due to the frequency and cadence of their exercise and racing schedules, the investigation stated, despite the fact that there was no direct correlation found between the racetrack surface and the deaths.
The 12 horses’ causes of death were listed by the investigation. Four horses experienced broken bones from dirt track racing, two from turf track racing, two soft tissue injuries from dirt track racing, two instances of exercise-related sudden death, one traumatic paddock injury, and one fracture from dirt track training.