Photo above: President U.S. Grant. Courtesy National Archives. Right: Valley of the Yellowstone, 1871, by William Henry Jackson, Hayden Survey. Courtesy Library of Congress.
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1875 - Detail
May 17, 1875 - The first Kentucky Derby is run at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. It would become the first leg of today's Triple Crown Series. The horse Aristides is the first winner.
It became the third race of the Triple Crown, although many today think of it as the first due to its primary running each year. The Belmont Stakes had run its first race in 1867; the Preakness in 1873. However, the Kentucky Derby, of the three, is the only race that has been run every year since its inception. The Belmont and Preakness have had breaks for several years. The impetus for starting the race stemmed not from those races, however, but from the Epsom Derby and Grand Prix de Paris. Colonel Meriweather Lewis Clark, Jr., grandson of William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition had visited Epsom and the Grand Prix de Paris three years earlier, came home, and started the Louisville Jockey Club. It was his intention to find suitable ground for a racetrack and hold a similar yearly Grade 1 Stakes Race.
By 1875, a racetrack had been built on eighty acres of land leased by John and Henry Churchill along the Louisville and Nashville Railroad tracks. The race was announced with fifteen horses, all three years old, and a crowd of ten thousand. They would run the first twenty-two races at a mile and a half distance, shortening it to today's mile and one quarter in 1896. Aristides, a colt under the training of Amsel Williamson and ridden by Oliver Lewis, won in a time of 2:37.75. Winning purse was $2,850. With the running of the Kentucky Derby, the Triple Crown races had their start, even though the term was not used until 1923.
Facts about the Kentucky Derby
Traditions of the Derby started at various times. In 1883, the Run for the Roses was established when a socialite gaves roses to ladies at the post-race party. 1883 was also the first year that the name Churchill Downs was used for the track. In 1896, the tradition of placing the roses on the winning horse was recorded for the first time. Today, five hundred and fifty-four roses are placed in that bouquet. A mint julip was an early tradition of the race, with souvenir glasses first introduced in 1939. In 1921, the tradition of playing Stephen Foster's song, "My Old Kentucky Home" during the post parade began.
The twin spires iconic features of the grandstand were not there on opening day in 1875, built in 1895 to the design of Joseph Dominic Valdez.
Today, Churchill Downs, including the infield, holds one hundred and seventy thousand spectators. It has grown to one hundred and forty-seven acres in size. There is seating for fifty thousand. Colts and geldings run the race with 126 pounds atop, including jockey and equipment; fillies with 121 pounds. A maximum field of twenty horses is allowed, chosen through a points system earned by placement in thirty-five previous races around the world.
Other Important Dates in Derby and Churchill Downs History
May 14, 1886 - In the 12th running of the Derby, Ben Ali set the all-time record for the mile and one half version at 2:36.50. He won $4,890.
June 5, 1907 - African American jockey James Lee won the entire six race card at Churchill Downs. This feat has never been repeated.
May 16, 1925 - First live radio broadcast of the race.
May 7, 1949 - First live television broadcast of the race.
May 5, 1973 - Secretariat established the current record time for the one and one quarter mile race at 1:59.40 in front of 134,476 fans. Only one other under two minute race has been run, by Monarchos, the winner at 1:59.97 in 2001. Although not timed, it is thought that Sham, the second place finisher in 1973 also ran under two minutes.
Photo above: Churchill Downs grandstand at the 1901 Kentucky Derby, 1901, Detroit Publishing Company. Courtesy Library of Congress. Photo below: Images of the Kentucky Derby in 1921 won by Behave Yourself, 1921, Caulfield and Shook. Courtesy Library of Congress. Info Source: Library of Congress; Kentuckyderby.com; Bustle.com; Wikipedia Commons.