Kentucky Derby - The Greatest Two Minutes in Sports
This weekend I will be experiencing my very first Kentucky Derby. As a new Louisvillian, I believe it is mandatory to attend this event. I have said this before, and I am reiterating this because I don’t think you all believe me, this town shuts down for this event. Jefferson County (my county and the county that Churchill resides in) has Friday, May 3rd off for “professional development.” HA! They aren’t fooling me! The university (of Louisville) will be closed. Last day of finals was this past Tuesday.
There is a 2 week celebration leading up to the Kentucky that starts with Thunder over Louisville and also includes a parade, a giant balloon festival, a steamboat race on the Ohio River, and a bunch of concerts, etc. It’s kind of a big deal.
So here is how the Derby became to be The Greatest Two Minutes in Sports:
The Kentucky Derby is the oldest consecutively held Thoroughbred race in America. It is run annually on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs in Louisville. Along with the Preakness in mid-May, and Belmont in early June, it is the first jewel of the coveted Triple Crown of Thoroughbred racing, which has been won by only eleven horses since 1919.
The first Kentucky Derby was held May 17, 1875, before a crowd of 10,000. In that race, a field of 15 three-year-olds ran a 1.5 mile course which was won by H.P. McGrath’s Aristides. Although the first Derby was held at 1.5 miles, the distance was changed to the current 1.25 miles in 1896.
Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. is largely responsible for the Kentucky Derby. After a trip to Europe in 1872 where he witnessed the finest horse racing England and France had to offer, he founded the Louisville Jockey Club in order to raise the money to build a first rate horse racing facility. The land for the race track was donated by his uncles John and Henry Churchill. Every Kentucky Derby in history has been run at this track. It wasn’t until 1937 that the track was officially named Churchill Downs through incorporation, more than 60 years after the first Kentucky Derby was run on May 17, 1875.
The Derby field is limited to three-year-olds; fillies (young female horse) carry 121 pounds and colts (young male horse) carry 126 pounds. Only three fillies have won the Derby: Regret in 1915, Genuine Risk in 1980, and Winning Colors in 1988.
The largest field was during the 100th running in 1974 when 23 horses ran. The smallest fields were in 1892 and 1905, with only three horses in each race.
The fastest Derby was run by the legendary Secretariat, who covered the 1 1/4 miles in 1:59 2/5, the only Derby winner to finish under two minutes.
As a place for gambling and drinking, the track was not a very welcoming place for women and children back in the day. Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. became inspired by trips to London’s Epsom Derby and Paris’ Grand Prix (posh events that attracted an elegant crowd). He sought in the 1870s to transform American racetracks from places associated with immorality and vice to venues that might attract a wealthier, more noble group. With the help of his wife, he went on a campaign throughout Louisville to convince his target clientele that the new race track was in fact a place for the upper-class. The first Derby event was viewed as a major success and paved the way for even grander affairs that quickly became as much about the fashion as they were about the racing.
The Mint Julep has been the traditional beverage of Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby for almost 100 years. It appears to be just like a mojito with whiskey instead of rum (it includes mint and sugar). You can get the recipe here.
Constructed in 1895, the Twin Spires were the creation of a 24-year-old draftsman, Joseph Dominic Baldez, who was asked to draw the blueprints for Churchill Downs’ new grandstand. Originally the plans did not include the Twin Spires atop Churchill Downs’ roofline, but as the young Baldez continued work on his design, he felt the structure needed something to give it a striking appearance. Described as towers in the original drawing, the hexagonal spires exemplify late 19th century architecture, in which symmetry and balance took precedence over function.
“My Old Kentucky Home”
Although there is no definitive history on the playing this song as a Derby Day tradition, it is believed to have originated in 1921 for the 47th running of the classic. The actual year the song was played as the horses were led onto the track to begin the Derby post parade is also unclear.
Since 1936, with only a few exceptions, the song has been performed by the University of Louisville Marching Band as the horses make their way from the paddock to the starting gate. You can hear it here.
In 1896, the Derby winner was draped in a blanket of roses, a practice continued to this day. This tradition has led to the Kentucky Derby frequently being referred to simply as “The Run for the Roses.”