Derby History

Derby History

The history of the derby is part of the DNA of horse racing and the town of Louisville, Kentucky. Founded by Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr. and the Louisville Jockey Club, Aristides won the first derby in 1875. The following 140 years introducted some of the greatest horses in racing to public, enshringing Chruchill Downs and the blanket of roses as the most sought-after prize in all of thoroughbred racing.


The History of the Kentucky Derby - A Timeline

1783 - The first horse races in Kentucky are held on Market Street in downtown Louisville.

1787 - Horsemen race horses at The Commons, a park-like block near Lexington's Race Street. Complaints by citizens over safety issues lead to the subsequent development of a formal race meet at The Commons, which is presided over by Kentucky Statesman Henry Clay, among others. The men who organized the meet establish a club known as the Commonwealth's First Jockey Club (later renamed the Kentucky Jockey Club).

1805 - A race course is developed at the now abandoned Shippingport Island in the Ohio River. The course is known as the Elm Tree Gardens.

1827 - The Hope Distillery Course is laid out on what is presently Main and 16th Streets. There are also a number of private tracks established around this time that compete for the racing audience. One of the most prominent of these private tracks is Peter Funk's Beargrass Track.

1833 - The Oakland Race Course is opened in what is now Old Louisville, at Seventh and Magnolia Streets. This track, which featured amenities including a clubhouse, helps bring racing back to a centralized location within the state.

1858 - The Woodlawn Course opens on the Louisville and Lexington railroad lines, just outside of today's St. Matthews. The site closed in 1970, but not before passing down its Woodlawn Vase - the trophy awarded at the Preakness Stakes to this day.

Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark

Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark

1872 - Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark, grandson of explorer General William Clark, travels to Europe and devises plans for the Louisville Jockey Club while abroad. When he returns, he begins development on his racetrack - a racetrack that he envisions showcasing the Kentucky breeding industry.

1874 - First public notice of the establishment of the track is announced in the Courier-Journal. The track is funded by membership fees solicited by Clark, and is built upon the land secured from his buddies John and Henry Churchill.

1875 - The running of the first Kentucky Derby occurs on May 17 in front of a crowd of 10,000.

1883 - The former Louisville Commercial reports on the ninth Kentucky Derby, making the first-ever reference to "Churchill Downs"

1894 - W.F. Schulte and associates purchase Clark's track and incorporate the new Louisville Jockey Club. They build a 285-foot grandstand, which will be topped by the famous twin spires that distinguish the venue to this day.

1896 - The length of the track is cut to 1 1/4 miles from 1 1/2 miles to give 3-year-old fillies relief during the spring.

1902 - The first Kentucky State Fair is held at Churchill Downs. The fair features a staged collision of two locomotives for a crowd of over 40,000. Later, auto races would be held on the track in conjunction with the State Fair

1908 - Parimutuel betting machines are restored at the track on a legal loophole after being banned almost two decades earlier.


Donerail, 1913

1913 - Donerail becomes the longest shot to win the Derby, posting an incredible payout. The following two years, Old Rosebud sets a track record of 2:03 2/5, winning by eight lengths, and Regret becomes the first filly to win the Derby. All three achievements earn the Kentucky Derby the reputation as a premier American sporting event.

1918 - James Graham Brown and the Kentucky Jockey Club take over ownership of Churchill Downs, Latonia, Douglas Park and the Kentucky Association. Winn remains vice president and general manager.

1925 - The first network radio broadcast of the Kentucky Derby is aired from Louisville station WHAS. "Run for the Roses" nickname is coined by N.Y. Journal-American writer Bill Corom, who would later become president of the Downs.

1928 - Churchill Downs is officially incorporated as the name of the racetrack.

1930 - The "box" starting mechanism is incorporated by the Kentucky Derby.

1931-33 - The first international radio broadcast of the Kentucky Derby is carried from Louisville to Lawrenceville, N.J., and then to England's BBC.

Modern Kentucky Derby Festival

Thunder Over Louisville, part of modern Derby Festival celebrations.

1935 - The first Kentucky Derby Festival is held.

1938 - The first tunnel from the grandstands to the infield is completed, and the infield is outfitted with with a presentation stand which is used for the Kentucky Derby winner.

1943 - Travel restrictions during the war led to a locals-only "Street Car Derby." Sixty-five thousand attendees watched racing great Count Fleet win easily. Keeneland, another racetrack, was forced to hold its meets at Churchill Downs.

1949 - Local telecast allows area viewers to witness Ponder capture the 75th Kentucky Derby. Col. Matt J Winn, general manager of Churchill Downs, dies at 88. He witnessed each of the first 75 Derbys.

1952 - The first network television broadcast of the Derby is made by CBS affiliate WHAS.

1968 - Dancer's Image is disqualified as Derby winner after testing finds an illegal medication. Second-place finisher Forward Pass is declared the winner.

1973 - Secretariat breaks the two-minute mark for the first time in Derby history with a time of 1:59 2/5. He goes on to become the first Triple Crown winner in more than two decades.

100th Derby

The 100th Kentucky Derby.

1974 - Churchill Down teems with a record 163,628 spectators to watch Cannonade win the 100th Derby.

1980 - Fifteen years of improvements nears completion. Renovations, additions and improvements will continue over the next decade. This includes the Kentucky Derby Museum, press boxes, jockey quarters, stables and many others.

1985 - Kentucky Derby Museum opened.

1993 - A record single-ticket payoff and the second largest Pick Six payoff in Churchill history are recorded when one lucky patron earns $351,941.

1995 - For the first time ever, Kentucky Derby wagering was offered to in state intertrack and off-track betting sources. A sum of $1,618,608 was reported as collected during wagering.

1996 - The Kentucky Oaks becomes the second largest attended day in Thoroughbred racing, behind the Kentucky Derby, when attendance reached 91,930.

2000 - Marks the third century in which Churchill Downs offers racing. Fusao Sekiguchi becomes the first Japanese owner to win the Derby, as his Fusaichi Pegasus captured the historic win.

2009 - Mine That Bird wins the Kentucky Derby in the second biggest upset in Derby History (since Donerail in 1913) by the largest margin since 1946.