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A brief History of

the Kentucky Derby

held at Churchill Downs

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Kentucky Derby History
Matthew Bass

The classic American horse race, 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, Kentucky. 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. Triple Crown winners include memorable
names such as Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Whirlaway, and Affirmed.

The first Kentucky Derby was held May 17, 1875, before a crowd of
10,000 from around the city, state and surrounding areas. 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. The Derby field is limited to three-year-olds;
fillies carry 121 pounds and colts 126 pounds. So far, only three
fillies have won the Derby: Regret in 1915, Genuine Risk in 1980,
and Winning Colors in 1988. The Kentucky Derby has also produced
countless statistics and bits of trivia over the course of its
history. 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.

Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr who built Churchill Downs in
Louisville, wanted his track to have a race that would rival
Englandís Epsom Derby. After visiting England to study both its
tracks and its races, he established the Kentucky Derby, which
was first run on May 17, 1875.

However, the Derby was just another regional race until 1902,
when Colonel Matt J. Winn took over the track. Although he had
seen every Derby since the beginning, Winn know little about
horse racing or running tracks. But he was a very good promoter.

After rising money to same Churchill Downs from bankruptcy, Winn
began making frequent trips to New York, then the center of
American racing to persuade owners to enter their horses in the
Kentucky Derby. His persistence paid off. By 1920, the Derby had
become the best-known race in the North America and it was
attracting the top three-year-olds from all over the country.

The first race in the Triple Crown, The Derby is run on the first
Saturday in May. A whole week of festivities know as The Kentucky
Derby Festival is built around the race which, like the
Indianapolis 500, has become as much a happening as a sporting
event. It attracts crowds of well over 150,000 spectators and is
watched on television by millions more, many of who are otherwise
not interested in Thoroughbred racing.

Matthew Bass

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