Every year, on the first Saturday in May, the world’s top three-year-old thoroughbreds come together for “the most exciting two minutes in sports” in the world-famous Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. The Kentucky Derby is the first leg of the American Triple Crown, a series of three grueling races held within five weeks time. The Preakness Stakes is held two weeks after the Kentucky Derby, with the Belmont Stakes three weeks after that. Only twelve horses in history have swept the three races, earning the title of Triple Crown winner.
The Kentucky Derby, which has run annually since 1875, caps off the two-week-long Kentucky Derby Festival and is a Grade I stakes race for three-year-old thoroughbreds at a distance of 1 ¼ mile. Also known as “The Run for the Roses,” due to the blanket of roses draped over the winner, the Kentucky Derby is North America’s most prestigious and well-known race. Each year, more than 160,000 fans pack into Churchill Downs to watch the race.
Kentucky Derby History
The Derby owns an interesting heritage, owing its creation to Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., the grandson of William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Returning home to Kentucky from France in the 1870s, Clark organized the Louisville Jockey Club for the purpose of raising money to build quality racing facilities just outside of the city. That track? It would soon become known as Churchill Downs, named for John and Henry Churchill.
And becoming the first leg of the Triple Crown? After the early runnings of the Kentucky Derby, thoroughbred owners began sending their successful Derby horses to compete a few weeks later in the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore, followed by the Belmont Stakes in New York. The three races offered the largest purse and in 1919, Sir Barton became the first horse to win all three races. It wasn’t until 11 years later though, in 1930, that the term “Triple Crown” was coined by sportswriter Charles Hatton when Gallant Fox became the second horse to win all three races.
You might know the Kentucky Derby for another reason too – Secretariat. That’s because he holds the fastest time ever run in the Derby at 1:59 2/5, set in 1974. His time has never been topped and, not only that, he’s known for something else unique: each successive quarter ran in a Triple Crown race, his times were faster. Other famous past winners include Seattle Slew, Citation, Spectacular Bid, Affirmed, War Admiral, American Pharoah, Smarty Jones and Barbaro.
Kentucky Derby Traditions: Mint Juleps and Big Hats
The Kentucky Derby is a race associated with tradition and you can count on a number of things. The Mint Julep is an iced cocktail consisting of bourbon, mint and sugar syrup and is the traditional beverage of the Derby race. Women often appear in outfits that are lavishly accessorized with large, elaborate hats. The rich and famous fill up “Millionaire’s Row.” And as the horses are paraded before the grandstands, Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home” is played by the University of Louisville Marching Band.
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