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a 1.25-mile race for three-year-old thoroughbred horses held on the first Saturday in May
In 1874, a group led by M. Lewis Clark (grandson of explorer William Clark) built a horse racing track on a Louisville, Kentucky, farm owned by a family named Churchill. Churchill Downs opened on May 17, 1875, and on that day almost 10,000 people watched 15 horses run the inaugural Kentucky Derby. Aristides, ridden by Oliver Lewis, was the first winner of the Kentucky Derby, and his owner collected the lion's share of the $2,850 prize purse. Clark modeled the race after the English Derby, held every year in Epsom, England. From 1875 to 1895, the horses raced 1.5 miles; the distance was then shortened to 1.25 miles, which remains the race distance today. The track was officially incorporated as Churchill Downs in 1937.
By the early 1900's, the owners of Kentucky Derby winners began sending the winners to the Preakness Stakes in Maryland and the Belmont Stakes in New York. In 1919, Sir Barton became the first horse ever to win all three of those races in a single year. That feat would not be repeated until 1930, by Gallant Fox. Sportswriter Charles Hatton used the term "Triple Crown" to describe Gallant Fox's accomplishment, and it is still used to refer to what is considered the highest point achievable in the world of thoroughbred racing. In 1933, to better accomodate a "Triple Crown" schedule, the race date for the Kentucky Derby was changed from mid-May (in which it had been run since the first race) to the first Saturday in May.
Qualifying for the Race
To qualify for the Kentucky Derby, a horse must be registered with the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, and be no more or less than three years old. Then, the horse must win or place in as many races sanctioned by the American Graded Stakes Committee as possible in the year preceding the Kentucky Derby. The more prize money the horse wins in that year the greater the chances Kentucky Derby organizers will give the horse one of the coveted starting positions. If a properly registered horse has been truly outstanding on the satellite circuit, the Kentucky Derby may extend an invitation to its owner, but such invitations have historically been rare.
Kentucky Derby Records and Trivia
Between 1875 and 1902, African-American jockeys won 15 of the 28 Kentucky Derbys; 13 of the 15 jockeys in the first race were African-Americans.
The most Kentucky Derby wins by a jockey is 5, a record shared by Eddie Arcaro and Bill Hartack.
On May 11, 1892, 15-year-old Alonzo Clayton became the youngest jockey ever to win the Kentucky Derby, aboard Anza.
The only jockey to ride a Kentucky Derby winner and train a Kentucky Derby winner was John Longden, who rode Triple Crown winner Count Fleet in 1943 and trained Majestic Prince in 1969.
The first woman to ride in the Kentucky Derby was Diane Crump in 1970. Her mount, Fathom placed 15th in the 96th Kentucky Derby.
Ben A. Jones holds the record for training the most Kentucky Derby winners -- 6.
James "Sunny Jim" Fitzsimmons and Ben Jones are the only trainers to train two Triple Crown winners. Fitzsimmons trained Gallant Fox in 1930 and his son Omaha 1935. Jones trained Whirlaway 1941 and Citation in 1948.
The youngest trainer to win the Kentucky Derby was James Rowe Sr., who was 24 when he won the Derby with Hindoo in 1881.
Calumet Farm holds the record for owning the most Kentucky Derby winners -- 8.
The first woman to own a Kentucky Derby winner was Laska Durnell, whose Elwood won in 1904.
The oldest winning owner was Mrs. Francis Genter, who at the age of 92, won the 1990 Kentucky Derby with Unbridled.
Secretariat holds the record for the fastest Kentucky Derby ever, at 1:59.40, which he ran on his way to the Triple Crown in 1973.
The last Kentucky Derby winner to sire a Kentucky Derby winner was Unbridled (1990), whose son Grindstone won in 1996.
Fusaichi Pegasus, who was purchased for $4 million by Fusao Sekiguchi at the Keenland Yearling Sales, was the most expensive horse to win the Kentucky Derby (2000).
Out of the 135 Kentucky Derby winners, 100 of them were bred in Kentucky.
Three maidens have won the Kentucky Derby -- Buchanan (1884), Sir Barton (1919), and Brokers Tip (1933).
The first Kentucky Derby to be televised live was run on May 3, 1952.
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This page was last updated on December 23, 2017.