Racing for the Roses - History of Kentucky Derby

Whether it takes the form of chilled mint juleps or the trademark phrase “And they're off”, there are few American sporting events with the visibility or popularity of the Kentucky Derby. The longest running annual horse race in the United States, the Derby has transcended sports to become a true icon of Americana. Like any other event, the Kentucky Derby has undergone various changes of the course of its history. This paper looks at the history behind the inauguration and early growth of the Derby before tracing its evolution through the media and other important milestones in its lifetime.

The Kentucky Derby's long, storied history began in 1872 with a trip by Meriwether Lewis Clark (ASSE May 7011). In that year, Clark – the grandson of William Clark of Lewis and Clark fame – traveled to Europe. While in England, Clark visited the Epsom Derby a well-known race which had been run since 1780 (IMSA 2007: 16). According to John Trowbridge's history of the Kentucky Derby published in 2011, after leaving England, Clark journeyed to Paris, France where he became familiar with the French Jockey Club (7). In 1863, that club of amateur enthusiast first organized the Grand Prix de Paris at Longchamps (Trowbridge 2011, 7). By the time of Clark's visit just 9 years later, the even was already referred to as the greatest race in France (Trowbridge 2011, 7). Inspired by what he had seen in Europe, Clark returned to Kentucky determined to develop similar spectacles. Sports historian John Nauright notes that his first step was joining together with other local gentlemen to organize the Louisville Jockey Club (2012, 257). The club began working to raise money for a permanent racetrack. A generous gift by Clark's relatives John and Henry Churchill provided the necessary land as well as a name for the track – Churchill Downs (Trowbridge 2011, 7). However, the track was not officially called Churchill Downs until 1937 – a moniker that has persisted ever since (Horse Race Betting 2009). In 1875, just three years after Clark's initial trip to England, his Louisville Jockey Club sponsored the first ever Kentucky Derby (Trowbridge 2011, 7).

Early on, the Kentucky Derby brought excitement to horse-racing, but its development was not without challenges. Even something as basic as the race's distance underwent changes during the first several years. The length of the first Derby in 1875 was 1.5 miles or 2.4 kilometers (IMSA 2011, 16). That distance was likely the result of Clark's experience in England as the Epsom Derby was also a 1.5 mile race (Trowbridge 2011, 7). Eleven years later in 1896, the race coordinators shortened the distance to its current 1.25 miles – 2 kilometers (IMSA 2011, 16). As mentioned previously, the first Kentucky Derby took place in 1875 in front of a cheering crowd of 10,000 spectators (Trowbridge 2011, 7). Records show that the field that year was made up of 15 three year old thoroughbreds (Trowbridge 2011, 7). That precedent established the tradition of the Derby as a race for the country's premier three year old thoroughbreds (Trowbridge 2011, 7). Current Kentucky Historical Society records list jockey Oliver Lewis as the winner of that initial race riding Aristides (2016). Aristides was trained by the renowned trainer and future Hall-of-Famer Ansel Williamson (National Museum of Racing 2016) After winning the Kentucky Derby, he went on to take 2nd place at the Belmont Stakes behind the winner Calvin (NYRA June 8, 2013).

Oliver Lewis, the winning jockey, was one of the premier jockeys of the time – part of a large group of prominent African-American jockeys in post-Emancipation America (Kentucky Historical Society 2016). Early on, African-American jockeys were welcomed and even celebrated by the horse-racing community. In fact, 15 of the first 28 jockeys who won the Kentucky Derby were black (Kentucky Historical Society 2016). Regrettably, that situation did not last. The Supreme Court ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson institutionalized segregation in 1896, and the subsequent unionization of white jockeys focused on pushing minorities out of the sport (Kentucky Historical Society 2016). According to official records Kentucky Historical Society records, the last African-American jockey to win the Kentucky Derby was Jimmy Winkfield in 1902 (Kentucky Historical Society 2016). From 1921 – 2000 the Derby did not feature a single African-American jockey (Kentucky Historical Society 2016). Marlon St. Julien broke that 79 year streak when he finished 7th on Curule (Kentucky Historical Society 2016). Despite the initial popularity of the Kentucky Derby, the events organizers faced serious financial difficulties in the early years. In 1902, Colonel Matt Winn – a local businessman – created a business syndicate for the specific purpose of acquiring the facility (IMSA 2007, 16). Under Winn's leadership, the Derby developed into the pre-eminent race for 3 year old thoroughbred horses in North America. The tradition of rewarding the winning horse with roses was actually not added until 1896, and it was not until 1925 that the race was officially dubbed the “Run for the Roses” (IMSA 2007, 16).

After the acquisition by Colonel Winn's syndicate, the Kentucky Derby began to see a rapid growth in its popularity. A major factor in that growth was the decision by owners of successful Derby horses to other popular races – specifically the Preakness States in Baltimore and the Belmont Stakes in New York. While both of those events preceded the Derby – According to Bert Sugar and Cornell Richardson's 2003 volume Horse Racing: An Inside Look at the Sport of Kings Belmont was first run in 1867 and the Preakness five years later in 1872 – the Kentucky Derby quickly caught up in terms of prestige and importance (163). It was not until 1919 that a single horse managed to win all three events in the same year. John Nauright's 2012 book Sports Around the World confirms that in 1919, Sir Barton became the first horse to accomplish the feat today known as the Triple Crown (Nauright 2012, 258). However, the term Triple Crown did not enter common usage until 11 years later. Bennett Liebman writes that in 1930, Gallant Fox became the second horse to win all three events and was labeled the Triple Crown champion (2016). The exact origins of the phrase are not clear. According to some sources, Charles Hatton – a sportswriter for the New York Times – introduced the label in his writeup of Gallant Fox's victory (Nauright 2012, 258). However, other historians have argued that the phrase has been used as early as 1894 (Liebman 2016). The designation of a Triple Crown had a long history in England where it referred to a horse that won the Two Thousand Guineas, the English Derby, and the St. Leger (Liebman 2016). Although Hatton may not have been responsible for the origins of the Triple Crown, his writings almost certainly deserve some credit for popularizing the phrase.

The following year, the date of the Kentucky Derby was permanently moved from an undetermined date in mid-May to the first Saturday in May (Nauright 2012, 258). This move coincided with the increased popularity of the idea of a Triple Crown winner by allowing for a consistent schedule. After the change, the Kentucky Derby was the first race followed by the Preakness and finally the Belmont Stakes (Nauright 2012, 258). An article by Scott Jagow last year notes that prior to 1931, the Preakness stakes had actually preceded the Derby 11 times since 1875. On two occasions – May 12, 1917 and May 13, 1922 – the races actually occurred on the exact same day (Jagow June 12, 2013). Similarly, the Belmont Stakes occurred before the Preakness 11 times before the order of the races was permanently set (Jagow June 12, 2013). Including Sir Barton and Gallant Fox, only 11 horses have ever won the Triple Crown although 22 other horses have won the first two legs at the Derby and Preakness Stakes (Horse Racing Nation 2013). According to the Kentucky Derby Museum in 2008, the last Triple Crown winner came in 1978 when Affirmed swept all three races.

As with any major sporting event, over the last century the media coverage associated with the Kentucky Derby has evolved dramatically. Prior to 1925, the only means of obtaining live results for the race was to actually be in attendance at the track. That all changed on May 16, 1925 when the Derby was broadcast live over the radio for the first time (McAdam April 30, 2010). Thomas McAdam's article in the Louisville Examiner on April 30, 2010 notes that the broadcast was originated by the local radio station WHAS. The signal was also picked up by the more notable WGN in Chicago (Fink & Coughlin 1961). All told, about 5-6 million listeners tuned in to hear Flying Ebony claim first place according to William Cummings history of WHAS radio published in May 7012 (70). In the years after that, the radio presence grew rapidly with NBC introducing the first nationwide live radio broadcast of the race less than ten years later (Cummings May 7012, 70).

The next major step for Derby media coverage was the leap to moving picture. On May 7, 1949, the Kentucky Derby was broadcast on television for the first time (Nicholson 2012). Sports authority James Nicholson recounted in 2012 how WAVE TV – a local Louisville NBC affiliate headed up the broadcast which aired live only in the Louisville area . As a consequence very few viewers were actually able to watch when Ponder won the 75th edition of the Derby as a 16 – 1 longshot (Nicholson 2012). After the limited local live broadcast, the film reels were sent to the national NBC studio which broadcasted the event nationally (Faded Signals January 18, 2013). The effort to televise the Derby was also significant as it utilized cameras with zoom lenses for the first time ever (Seacoast Online August 21, 2013).

In 1952, the public exposure of the Kentucky Derby was widened even further with the first national live television coverage of the race in its history (ESPN News October 4, 1999). This time, it was a CBS affiliate, WHAS-TV, which led organized the broadcast (Nicholson 2012). According to Nicholson, at the time it was believed to be the most expensive half-hour of broadcasting in television history (2012). The significant investment paid off as the broadcast attracted between 10 and 15 million viewers (Nicholson 2012). Prior to the event, critics raised concerns that live coverage of the race would decrease actual attendance and betting on Derby. However, those fears did not come to fruition as the Derby continued to attract sell-out crowds and ever increasing amounts of wagers (Nicholson 2012). If anything, television may have raised the Derby's popularity by bringing it directly into households across America.

Over the last 138 years, the Kentucky Derby has seen countless notable moments, but a few stand out above the rest. In 1954, the total purse for the event exceeded $100,000 for the first time in the race's history (Nauright 2012, 258). The total prize pool has continued to grow since then reaching a hefty $2 million in 2005 according to an ESPN article by Bill Finley on January 10, 2005. In 1968, Dancer's Image was disqualified making him the first and so far only winner with that ignoble distinction (Nauright 2012, 258). The disqualification resulted after post-race urine testing revealed traces of the banned substance phenylbutazone (Nauright 2012, 258). After a lengthy legal battle by the horse's owners, the championship for the year was awarded to the runner-up – Forward Pass. Ironically, the rules of the Derby were later changed to legalize phenylbutazone (Nauright 2012, 258).

The Kentucky Derby broke the gender barrier in 1970 when Diane Crump became the first female jockey to ride in the race. An article by Sheena McKenzie for CNN in 2012 underscored the reality that while her result in the race was not particularly remarkable – finishing 15th out of 18 horses – her role in bringing women to the forefront of horseracing later won her a place in the Hall of Fame. According to sportswriter Ron Flatter in 1999, Secretariat set the fastest time in the 1 ¼ mile track's history in 1973. His run of 1 minute 59.4 seconds broke the nine year old record set by Northern Dancer in 1964 (Flatter 1999). Making Secretariat's run even more astounding was the fact that his times were shorter in each succeeding quarter mile – a feat that has never been matched (Greater Louisville Chamber of Commerce March 2013). In fact, the only other horse to finish the Derby in under two minutes was Monarchos who finished the course in 1 minute 59.97 seconds in 2001 (Greater Louisville Chamber of Commerce March 2013).

More recently, jockeys riding in the Derby were only allowed to wear corporate logos in 2004 after a court order overturned the race's longstanding ban on such symbols (Liebman 2004, 1). According to an article by Albany Law School Professor Bennett Liebman in 2004, Derby organizers argued that the prohibition was necessary to protect the integrity of horse racing, but the court disagreed (2004, 2). While there are potential legal future legal questions such as an owner's ability to dictate the logo worn by a jockey, for now the basic issue has been settled (Liebman 2004, 4). An article by Alison Fox for Southern Gaming notes that when the purse was expanded to $2 million in 2005 the number of horses receiving a share of the prize was also expanded to include the 5th place finisher (2016). At present, the race uses a typical prize distribution system which gives 62% of the purse to first place, 20% to second place, 10% to third place, and 5% to fourth, leaving 3% for fifth place (Fox 2016). In 2010, Calvin Borel became the first jockey in Derby history to win three out of four consecutive races (Greater Louisville Chamber of Commerce March 2013).

The Kentucky Derby has come a long way since that first race in 1875. Some changes, like the disappearance of African-American jockeys for 79 years, are far from progress . Overall however, the Derby has worked to move forward. The introduction of the Triple Crown award and live television coverage are just two ways in which the race has permeated the public consciousness. With a recently expanded prize pool, it seems likely that the Kentucky Derby is likely to continue attracting jockeys and owners vying for the blanket of roses as they seek to join Secretariat in immortal racing lore.

Works Cited

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