by Emily Baker
As primarily hunter/jumpers in the equestrian world we often celebrate The Kentucky Derby purely for its ceremonial value. What we may overlook is that this race is the longest standing sports tradition in US history and is one of the greatest influences in the popularity of our sport today.
The tradition was brought to America but Meriwether Clark, grandson of Lewis and Clark, who had attended the historic Epsom Derby in England and fell in love with the sport. Clark returned to the states and founded what would 8-years later be called “Churchill Downs,” in honor of his grandparents who gifted him the land. Admission price was $.50. Aristides, one of fifteen three-year-olds in competition, won the very first Kentucky Derby on May 17, 1875. The first race was a whopping 1.5 miles long.
Since then the race has evolved to become a national spectacle that has remained stable despite the influence of war or economic turmoil. With the growing popularity of the race it was evident that some changes needed to be made in the years to come. Grandstands and the twin spires were erected at Churchill Downs to accommodate the growing crowds. In addition, the race was shortened to 1.25 miles as the original length was determined to be too long for the young thoroughbreds.
In 1899, the race encountered its first tragedy with the suicide of Meriwether Clark. He killed himself twelve short days before the running of the 25th derby. The Derby fell to the leadership Matt J. Winn who saw the first profits at Churchill Downs four years later.
As history wound on the Derby continued to overcome hardship and strife in America and around the world, and became a symbol of hope for millions of Americans. In 1930 the Depression hit the United States. Unemployment skyrocketed from 3.2% to 8.9% in one year and reached its zenith five years later at 20.1%. During this time a little horse with a big reputation inspired millions who were struggling with starvation and poverty. His name was Seabiscuit.
During the 20th century the race was hit hard by the racial segregation in the United States. During the pre-Civil Rights era African Americans were facing discrimination and violence throughout America and particularly in the Jim Crow South. Prior to the 1920s the majority of jockeys were black and 15 of the first 28 derbies were won by African American riders. From 1921 until the onset of the 21st century, however, not a single African American raced in the Kentucky Derby.
The Kentucky Derby overcame even the challenges of both World Wars. In spite of restrictions on travel, the Kentucky Derby of 1943 was held in front of 65,000 spectators and was won by Count Fleet bringing hope and joy to millions around the world in war time.
In 1970 the first female jockey races in the derby. Her name was Diane Crump and she finished 15th in the field. Though she didn’t win the race, this was a huge victory for women in America who still today are fighting for equal rights.
In 1973 Secretariat, one of the most famous names in horse racing, won the Derby and went on to win the Triple Crown. He finished the race in 1: 49: 40 which is still the track record to date.
Today the Kentucky Derby is an international event. The advent of television and radio brings the race to households worldwide. The price of admission is now $30, inexpensive in sports standards today but a huge hike when considering the original $.50 ticket price. The most recent Kentucky Derby boasted 165,307 fans and set a $133.1 million wagering record. 141 years later the Kentucky Derby continues to grow and attract the attention and admiration of horse lovers and sports fans around the world.