The Kentucky Derby is one of the horse races with the biggest tradition that dates back close to 150 years. Over the years the Kentucky Derby was one of the most stable horse racing events that managed to survive some tough times, even throughout the Great Depression.
Nowadays, the Kentucky Derby is a bright spot in the horse racing calendar that marks the beginning of the Triple Crown races. Its popularity over the years has grown to a point where it attracts hundreds of thousands of fans on the track and millions watching it on television.
But is the Derby the same as when it started?
Well, it is safe to say that the entire sport advanced to a point where now it is safer and more exciting to watch. With that said, let’s browse through history and find out how the Kentucky Derby evolved throughout history.
The Beginnings of the Kentucky Derby
The Kentucky Derby was started by Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr., grandson of the explorer William Clark who was a famous explorer at that time. Clark was in love with horse racing he’d seen in Europe and wanted to recreate the sport in the U.S.
He managed to raise the money to build Churchill Downs on a land that was donated to him by his uncles.
It all started when Clark visited Europe in 1872, and attended a few leading horse races in England and France. He was really inspired by the Epsom Downs racecourse which was the home of the Derby Stakes since 1780 and decided to bring home similar horse racing action.
After his return home, Clark immediately started raising money to fund the Louisville Jockey Club and to build a racecourse. He envisioned his racetrack to be a place where the city’s stylish residents would gather, or like a spot where there will be a lot of glamour and prestige.
This led to the first Kentucky Derby race which was organized on May 17, 1875, where 10,000 people attended the race. Rather differently from today’s Kentucky Derby, the first race featured a field of 15 three-year-old thoroughbreds racing 1.5 miles.
According to TwinSpires, the winning horse in the first race was ridden by Oliver Lewis, an African-American jockey that managed to finish the course in 2:37.75.
Evolution of the Kentucky Derby
Throughout the first three decades of the Kentucky Derby, the race was dominated by black riders, who played an important role in the race’s early years. Between 1875 and 1902, out of 15 winners, eleven were black jockeys.
However, things changed in the early 20th century, when jealousy of the success of the African-American riders resulted in their disappearance from the Kentucky Derby. Jimmy Winkfield, was the last ever African American jockey that managed to win the Derby in 1902.
Another important change that also occurred in the early years of the race was the shortening of the circuit. In 1896, after a few complaints by some members of the racing community that the distance of the Kentucky Derby is too long, organizers shorten the length of the track from 1.5 miles to 1.25 miles, which is the length that still remains today.
The other more significant change that turned into a tradition was the date of the race. In the beginning, the Kentucky Derby was organized in mid-May, but in 12931 the race was permanently scheduled for the first Saturday in May.
This change was necessary due to the popularity of the Triple Crown races and in order to allow participants more time to recover and prepare for the Preakness Steaks and Belmont Stakes.
Due to the exponential growth in popularity of the Kentucky Derby, thanks to its first TV coverage in 1952 and Radio broadcast in 1925 organizers decided to increase the winning purse which exceeded $100,000 for the first time.
Since then, little has changed in terms of the rules of the race. The prize purses continued to rise and horses continued to get better and better. In fact, Secretariat managed to set the fastest time to date completing the Kentucky Derby in 1:59:40, and went to win the Triple Crown races.
Change to the Qualifying System
Fast forward to modern times to 2012, and we have another important change in how the Kentucky Derby is organized. Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby announced that they are going to make a complete overhaul of the Kentucky Derby qualification system.
This change allowed more participants to jump on the fast-moving train to Kentucky and a fair chance for every horse that wants to participate in this big race.
Until then, the qualifying process was based on earnings won in stake races. However, the new system that officially started in 2013 featured a new point system that is aligned with specific stakes races throughout the year, which are called “Road to Kentucky” races.
Each of the top four finishers in these specific races will receive points. As the Road to Kentucky progresses closer to the main event, the point values offered for each race increase.
The Road to Kentucky now has thirty-five races throughout the year, and the top 20 participants that will earn the most points will get to participate in the Kentucky Derby.
The Kentucky Derby is one of the leading horse races in the modern world. It somehow managed to keep its tradition and it is now considered one of the most exciting races in the horse racing calendar. It is truly fascinating to see the history and tradition of the Kentucky Derby and how it survived through tough times without changing the whole concept much. This year, the Kentucky Derby will host its 148th run and it is safe to say that we will see some exciting horse racing action at Churchill Downs. If you still haven’t watched the Kentucky Derby live, we strongly encourage you to do so and get a piece of the history of this amazing race with you forever.