The History Behind The Kentucky Derby

In 1875, roughly 10,000 onlookers witnessed the very first Kentucky Derby. Steeped in tradition, the Derby is the country’s oldest continuously run horse race. But historically, horseracing dates back even further to the original Olympic Games held in 648 BC, proving mankind’s desire to witness the style and grace of thoroughbreds. Below you’ll find the big milestones that occurred during the history of the Kentucky Derby.

Naming Churchill Downs

Prior to the first Derby, Meriweather Lewis Clark, Jr., grandson of William Clark (of Lewis and Clark fame), visited England’s Epsom Derby only to be further intrigued by the sport. Later he traveled to Paris to attend the Grand Prix de Paris. Inspired, Clark returned home to Louisville, Kentucky, where he created the Louisville Jockey Club to raise funding for a racetrack. This track would come to be known as Churchill Downs after John and Henry Churchill who owned the land.

Kentucky Derby Traditions

Clark’s original traditions would continue through modern day races. First and foremost, all horses would be three year-old thoroughbreds. Not since 1882 have any winners been younger. Free of enhancements, the horses are all expected to be equally matched, competing only really against one another’s strength, agility and talent. The jockey would play the role of driver, recognizing those around him, and navigating the track filled with competitors.

Genesis of the Mint Julep

The race itself would be a component to the event, complete with a signature drink, filled to the brim with Southern charm. The mint julep would find its audience, often in signature glasses bearing the winners of previous races. The julep stands out today as an unofficial symbol of the Derby that is not only recognizable, but also enjoyable regardless of social class.

Luxury Boxes vs. Track-Side Seats

Before the glitz and glamour, the sport was simply focused on the race. But with the help of rich investors during troubled financial times, Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby was saved. Saved indeed. It was the wealthy investors who arrived in dapper attire, wives in tow—donning bright Southern dresses and large hats to shield them from the sun. As the wealthy wanted less to be near the track that would inevitably get dirty, they opted to pay for the luxury of the box seats above the stands. This would eventually come to be known as “Millionaire’s Row,” inhabited by stars, celebrities and enthusiasts with means.

Conversely, box seating and the stands would become perfect places to watch the race, but a subsection of the population simply wanted to be around the event, unfazed by the fact they would most likely not see the race at all. This would be an area located on the inside of the track for the cost of a regular general admission ticket. Those willing to miss the race would throw caution to the wind and enjoy the party atmosphere instead.

It All Comes Down to the Horse

Collectively, the history and tradition of the Derby outshines most sports. The athletes in question are not domesticated. They weigh almost half a ton and run about 40 to 50 miles per hour. They demonstrate poise despite their size. Muscle and grace are juxtaposed as they race across the track; and it’s over in mere minutes. Today, the Kentucky Derby continues its traditions and celebrates its newest fans.

Experience the excitement of the Kentucky Derby at Potawatomi Hotel & Casino in Milwaukee.

Header image courtesy of Bill Brine.