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Kentucky Derby, the most prestigious American horse race, established in 1875 and run annually on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs racetrack, Louisville, Kentucky. With the Preakness Stakes (run in mid-May) and the Belmont Stakes (early in June), it makes up American Thoroughbred racing’s coveted Triple Crown.
The Derby field is limited to three-year-olds and, since 1975, to 20 horses; fillies carry 121 pounds (55 kg) and colts 126 pounds (57 kg). The race distance was reduced in 1896 from 1.5 miles (about 2,400 metres) to its present 1.25 miles (about 2,000 metres). In the early 21st century it was one of the most popular single-day spectator events in the world, attracting some 150,000 spectators to Churchill Downs annually.
Beginner’s Guide to the Kentucky Derby
The Kentucky Derby is restricted to 3-year-old racehorses, male or female, so a Thoroughbred is eligible for the race only once in their lives. Horses must be nominated to the Triple Crown and then qualify for the Kentucky Derby through a series of races that award points to the top four finishers. The Kentucky Derby field is restricted to 20 runners.
Three fillies (female 3-year-old racehorses) have won the Kentucky Derby: Regret (1915), Genuine Risk (1980), and Winning Colors (1988).
WHAT: The ‘Run for the Roses’
The Kentucky Derby is often called the run for the roses because the winner has a blanket of roses draped over his/her back after the race. As mentioned above, the Kentucky Derby is only for 3-year-olds and limited to 20 starters. The race itself is a 1 ¼-mile race on a dirt main track that is a test of both speed and stamina.
The oldest continuously held major sporting event in the U.S., the race also is commonly referred to as “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports.”
WHEN: The First Saturday in May
The Kentucky Derby is held every year – well, every year when the world is not in the midst of a pandemic – on the first Saturday in May. From 1946 through 2019, the race was held on the first Saturday of the month of May until COVID-19 in 2020 forced the postponement of the race until September. The Kentucky Derby returned to its usual place on the calendar in 2021 and this year’s 147th Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve will be held on May 1.
The race has been held outside the month of May only three times: Monday, April 29, 1901; Saturday, June 9, 1945; and Sept. 5, 2020. The Kentucky Derby has been run on a Saturday on 108 occasions and each day of the week except Sunday. The last time it wasn’t staged on a Saturday was 1910.
WHY: Inspired Abroad
The history of the Kentucky Derby originates in 1872, when the aforementioned Meriwether Lewis Clark traveled to Europe and attended the Epsom Derby in England, a race run since 1780, and met members of the French Jockey Club. Inspired by his trip and experience in Europe, he set out to create a similar racing event in the U.S.
Gifted the land to develop a racetrack and, after formally organizing the Louisville Jockey Club, Clark and his new club raised the funding to build Churchill Downs in Louisville. On May 17, 1875, the track opened its gates for the first time and the Louisville Jockey Club sponsored the inaugural Kentucky Derby. Fifteen 3-year-old Thoroughbred racehorses competed in the 1 ½-mile race in front of approximately 10,000 fans with Aristides prevailing.
In the years since that first running, the Kentucky Derby has evolved and become the most important event on the racing calendar as well as the main focus of horse racing fans every spring, a time when 3-year-old racehorses frequently mature mentally and develop physically into elite athletes.
With five Kentucky Derby wins apiece, jockeys Eddie Arcaro and Bill Hartack share the record for most Derbies won over the course of a career. Though the Derby is often called “the most exciting two minutes in sports,” only two horses have officially finished the race in under two minutes.
The course record was set in 1973 by Secretariat, who finished in 1:59 2/5. (The runner-up in that race, Sham, finished two and a half lengths behind Secretariat, which some observers believe meant that he also broke two minutes, but only winners’ times were then recorded.) The second horse to surpass the two-minute mark was Monarchos, who won the 2001 Derby in a computer-timed 1:59.97.
The largest margin of victory for a Derby winner is eight lengths, which has been achieved four times, most recently by Assault in 1946. Trainer Ben Jones’s record of six Kentucky Derby wins—most of them for Calumet Farm, which won eight Kentucky Derbies between 1941 and 1968—was surpassed by Bob Baffert in 2021. The greatest upset in Derby history occurred in 1913, when Donerail won at odds of 91–1. The first filly to win the Kentucky Derby was Regret in 1915; Genuine Risk (1980) and Winning Colors (1988) are the only other fillies to have won.
The history of horse racing in Louisville predates Kentucky’s admission to the United States, in 1792, by about a decade: from at least 1783, problems associated with open racing in the downtown area led city leaders to promote the construction of formal racetracks. Particularly influential in the history of Louisville racing was Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., the grandson of legendary explorer William Clark.
In 1872 Clark traveled to Europe, where he met the foremost figures in horse racing there and developed the idea of establishing a jockey club in Louisville to sponsor races and highlight the city’s champion racing stock. In 1874 he established a racetrack on land owned by his uncles, John and Henry Churchill, for whom the track would eventually be named.
The track officially opened on May 17, 1875, and the first Derby (one of four races at the track that day) was won by Aristides. The track’s famed grandstand, completed in 1895, is crowned by twin spires that have become a recognized emblem of the Kentucky Derby and Churchill Downs.
Over the years the Kentucky Derby became not just the leading American horse race but a broader cultural festival as well. Tens of thousands of Kentuckians and visitors annually flock to Churchill Downs to partake in the various galas, dinners, and other social events that come with each Derby weekend. Among the long-standing Derby traditions are the drinking of mint juleps (an iced cocktail consisting of bourbon, mint, and sugar), the wearing of ornate hats by female spectators, and the raucous partying that takes place in the track’s infield.
The popular Derby nickname “Run for the Roses,” coined by sports columnist Bill Corum in 1925, is reflected in the blanket of red roses draped over the victorious horse after the race, a tradition that dates to at least 1932. The tradition of playing Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home” as the horses enter the track also dates to the 1930s.
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Winners of the Kentucky Derby are provided in the table.
|*The initial winner, Dancer’s Image, was disqualified.|
|**Fastest time—1 min 59 2/5 sec.|
|***The initial winner, Maximum Security, was disqualified.|
|1878||Day Star||J. Carter|
|1879||Lord Murphy||C. Shauer|
|1885||Joe Cotton||E. Henderson|
|1886||Ben Ali||P. Duffy|
|1888||Macbeth II||G. Covington|
|1896||Ben Brush||W. Simms|
|1897||Typhoon II||F. Garner|
|1900||Lieut. Gibson||J. Boland|
|1901||His Eminence||J. Winkfield|
|1903||Judge Himes||H. Booker|
|1906||Sir Huon||R. Troxler|
|1907||Pink Star||A. Minder|
|1908||Stone Street||A. Pickens|
|1914||Old Rosebud||J. McCabe|
|1916||George Smith||J. Loftus|
|1917||Omar Khayyam||C. Borel|
|1919||Sir Barton||J. Loftus|
|1920||Paul Jones||T. Rice|
|1921||Behave Yourself||C. Thompson|
|1924||Black Gold||J.D. Mooney|
|1925||Flying Ebony||E. Sande|
|1926||Bubbling Over||A. Johnson|
|1928||Reigh Count||C. Lang|
|1929||Clyde Van Dusen||L. McAtee|
|1930||Gallant Fox||E. Sande|
|1931||Twenty Grand||C. Kurtsinger|
|1932||Burgoo King||E. James|
|1933||Brokers Tip||D. Meade|
|1936||Bold Venture||I. Hanford|
|1937||War Admiral||C. Kurtsinger|
|1942||Shut Out||W.D. Wright|
|1943||Count Fleet||J. Longden|
|1945||Hoop Jr.||E. Arcaro|
|1947||Jet Pilot||E. Guerin|
|1951||Count Turf||C. McCreary|
|1952||Hill Gail||E. Arcaro|
|1953||Dark Star||H. Moreno|
|1957||Iron Liege||W. Hartack|
|1958||Tim Tam||I. Valenzuela|
|1959||Tomy Lee||W. Shoemaker|
|1960||Venetian Way||W. Hartack|
|1961||Carry Back||J. Sellers|
|1964||Northern Dancer||W. Hartack|
|1965||Lucky Debonair||W. Shoemaker|
|1966||Kauai King||D. Brumfield|
|1967||Proud Clarion||R. Ussery|
|1968*||Forward Pass||I. Valenzuela|
|1969||Majestic Prince||W. Hartack|
|1970||Dust Commander||M. Manganello|
|1971||Canonero II||G. Avila|
|1972||Riva Ridge||R. Turcotte|
|1974||Cannonade||A. Cordero, Jr.|
|1975||Foolish Pleasure||J. Vasquez|
|1976||Bold Forbes||A. Cordero, Jr.|
|1977||Seattle Slew||J. Cruguet|
|1979||Spectacular Bid||R. Franklin|
|1980||Genuine Risk||J. Vasquez|
|1981||Pleasant Colony||J. Velasquez|
|1982||Gato del Sol||E. Delahoussaye|
|1983||Sunny’s Halo||E. Delahoussaye|
|1985||Spend a Buck||A. Cordero, Jr.|
|1988||Winning Colors||G. Stevens|
|1989||Sunday Silence||P. Valenzuela|
|1991||Strike the Gold||C. Antley|
|1992||Lil E. Tee||P. Day|
|1993||Sea Hero||J. Bailey|
|1994||Go For Gin||C. McCarron|
|1995||Thunder Gulch||G. Stevens|
|1997||Silver Charm||G. Stevens|
|1998||Real Quiet||K. Desormeaux|
|2000||Fusaichi Pegasus||K. Desormeaux|
|2002||War Emblem||V. Espinoza|
|2003||Funny Cide||J. Santos|
|2004||Smarty Jones||S. Elliott|
|2007||Street Sense||C. Borel|
|2008||Big Brown||K. Desormeaux|
|2009||Mine That Bird||C. Borel|
|2010||Super Saver||C. Borel|
|2011||Animal Kingdom||J. Velazquez|
|2012||I’ll Have Another||M. Gutierrez|
|2014||California Chrome||V. Espinoza|
|2015||American Pharoah||V. Espinoza|
|2017||Always Dreaming||J. Velazquez|
|2019***||Country House||F. Prat|
|2021||Medina Spirit||J. Velazquez|