First of the three races known as the American Triple Crown championship series for three-year-old Thoroughbreds, the Kentucky Derby in its infancy was patterned after England's Derby Stakes at Epsom. The American Derby version was the vision and brainchild of Colonel M. Lewis Clark, who traveled to England in 1872 to observe Brit flat racing.
Run each year on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, the race today seeps tradition from each grandstand seat and from every sip of a mint julep from a collectible Kentucky Derby-garland glass. Referred to as the Run for the Roses, the race is limited to twenty horses who survive a prep season that begins with over 300 entry nominees.
"My Old Kentucky Home", the race's traditional song penned by Stephen Foster -another race, the Stephen Foster Handicap, was named in 1982 to honor Foster's contribution to the Derby - greets the runners and jockeys as they emerge from the tunnel beneath the grandstand and parade toward the starting gate. A 56 ounce, 22 inch trophy topped by an 18 karat gold horse with rider is presented to the race victors. A wreathe of roses is tossed across the shoulders of the winning Thoroughbred, and he and his connections take a place in history.
In 2006, Barbaro became just the third Thoroughbred ever to enter the Kentucky Derby as an unbeaten and to leave the famous Churchill Downs track with his record intact. Seattle Slew (1977) and Smarty Jones (2004) preceded Barbaro. By the time these three champions approached the Run for the Roses, the Kentucky Derby had become a global enterprize.
In its beginnings the race was overlooked as unimportant by established eastern horsemen.
The Blood-Horse Magazine, in 1999, named its Top 100 Racehorses of the 20th Century. The top vote-getter was Man o' War, who never competed for the Run for the Roses. The great horse's owner, easterner Sam Riddle, shunned Kentucky racing. It was also his opinion that ten furlongs, the length of the Kentucky Derby, was too long a distance to race green three-year-olds.
Seven of "The Blood-Horse" magazine's top ten selection went to Kentucky to race in the Derby. Five of them were successful.
Riddle's opinions met with conformity later, when a retired Man o' War sired War Admiral. This surly brown son of Man o' War went to Kentucky in 1937 and swept away the competition on his way to becoming the fourth historic Triple Crown winner.
Colonel Clark and 320 interested parties formed the Louisville Jockey Club in 1874 and contributed $100 apiece to build Clark's vision. Outside Louisville, 80 acres of land was developed to construct the race track that would be named for its previous owners, John and Henry Churchill, Clark's uncles.
Aristides, a chestnut colt owned by H.P. McGrath, won the first Kentucky Derby in 1875 for a delighted, cheering crowd of 10,000 racing fans. Today, as many as 50- to over 100,000 rabid fans go to Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby and help elevate the day's track betting handle to as much as $10,000,000, or more. In addition, off-track betting may reach $90,000,000.
Many owners and trainers today contend that winning the Kentucky Derby is the best achievement of a career in horseracing, and their contentions prove valid in the breeding industry. Racehorses begin their official careers together, as each year the new crop are given a racing birth date of January 1st. Breeding, bloodlines, and birthing records are strictly kept in the world of Thoroughbred racing. Most owners of Kentucky Derby winners will command a stud fee as high as $25,000 to $50,000 per mating to have their champion introduced to the best mares.
Many aspire to win the Kentucky Derby, but only one each year leaves Louisville in wreathed glory.