Kentucky Derby History

There are few American sporting events with the history and popularity of the Kentucky Derby. It’s rich traditions – sipping a mint julep, donning a beautiful hat, and joining fellow race fans in singing “My Old Kentucky Home” – transcend the Kentucky Derby from just a sporting event, making it a celebration of southern culture and a true icon of Americana. The Kentucky Derby is the longest running sporting event in the United States, dating back to 1875.  The race is often referred to as "The Run for the Roses®" and  has continuously produced “the most exciting two minutes in sports”; uninterrupted, even when coinciding with profound historical events like The Great Depression and World Wars I & II.

The Kentucky Derby’s long history began in 1872, when Meriwether Lewis Clark, the grandson of William Clark – of the famed pair Lewis and Clark – traveled to Europe. While there, Clark attended the Epsom Derby in England, a well-known horse race run since 1780, and also fraternized with the French Jockey Club, a group that developed another popular horse race, the Grand Prix de Paris Longchamps. Clark was inspired by his travels and experiences, and, upon his return, was determined to create a spectacle horse racing event in the States. With the help of his uncle’s John & Henry Churchill, who gifted Clark the necessary land to develop a racetrack, and by formally organizing a group of local race fans to be named the Louisville Jockey Club, Clark and his new club raised funds to build a permanent racetrack in Louisville, Kentucky. On May 17th, 1875, the racetrack opened its gates and the Louisville Jockey Club sponsored the very first Kentucky Derby. A total of fifteen three-year-old Thoroughbred horses raced one and a half miles in front of a cheering crowd of approximately 10,000 spectators. Aristides was the first winner of the Kentucky Derby.

As with any major event, the Kentucky Derby has undergone various changes over the course of three centuries. From shortening the distance of the race, the introduction of traditions like draping the winning horse in a garland of roses, to the growing size of Derby crowds, the Kentucky Derby has embraced the change of time, while honoring the integrity of the spectacle race set forth by Meriwether Lewis Clark. Follow the timeline below to see just how far the Kentucky Derby has come since 1875. You’ll learn about special events in the history of the Kentucky Derby, like legendary horse performances, record-setting race facts and significant changes in the celebration of the Kentucky Derby.

1874 – Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark forms the Louisville Jockey Club and acquires land for racetrack from his uncles John & Henry Churchill.

1875 – The first Kentucky Derby race takes place on May 17th. Aristides races 1.5 miles to win, in a field of fifteen horses, in front of a crowd of 10,000 spectators.

1883 – Leonatus wins the Derby, and the name “Churchill Downs” is first used to landmark the racetrack that is the home of the Kentucky Derby.

1889 – Bookmakers demand that Colonel Clark remove pari-mutuel betting machines, because they are cutting into the bookmakers profits. Spokane wins the Derby.

1894 – Due to the growing crowd size, a 285-foot grandstand is constructed to accommodate race fans. Chant wins the Derby.

1895 – The famed Twin Spires greet the Kentucky Derby crowd, on May 6th. Halma wins the Derby.

1896 – It is thought that the distance of the Derby race is too long for three year old Thoroughbreds that early in the spring, so the distance of the Derby race is shortened from one and a half miles to one and a quarter miles. Ben Brush wins the Derby, and he receives a floral arrangement of white and pink roses.

1899 – Founder of the Kentucky Derby, Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark, commits suicide on April 22, 1899, just twelve days before the 25th running of the Kentucky Derby, where Manuel wins.

1903 – Now under the leadership of Colonel Matt J. Winn, the racetrack celebrates its first profit after the Kentucky Derby on May 2nd where Judge Himes wins the race.

1904 – The red rose becomes the official flower of the Kentucky Derby and Elwood wins the race.

1908 – The use of pari-mutuel wagering machines is restored, and bookmakers are outlawed. The Derby day crowd bets a total of $67,570 of which $18,300 is placed on the Derby race alone. Stone Street wins the Derby.

1911 – The minimum bet is reduced from $5 to $2, and a betting booth is introduced. Two men are stationed in a booth to receive fans’ bets – one sells the wagering ticket, and the other operates a clicker to account for the number of tickets sold. Meridian wins the Derby.

1913 – The fees to enter a horse in the Derby and the Derby winning prize money are restructured. The new charges are $25 to nominate a horse for the Kentucky Derby and $100 for the horse to actually run in the race. With those collected fees, plus Churchill Downs adding $5,000 to the purse, the winning horse receives $5,475. Donerail wins the Derby, and becomes the longest shot to win. He pays $184.90 to win bets, $41.20 to place bets, and $13.20 to show bets.

1914 – Old Rosebud wins the Derby and sets a new track record, finishing the race in 2:03:04 and eight lengths ahead of the second place finisher.

1915 – For the third consecutive year, the Kentucky Derby splashes the news, as the first filly, Regret, wins the race. This publicity establishes the Kentucky Derby as a premier sporting event in America, after its 41st running.

1919 – Sir Barton wins the Derby and is also the first winner of what would become the Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing. In the span of just 32 days, Sir Barton won the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, the Withers Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes.

1922 – Mor Vich wins the Derby and, in addition to the winning purse, he receives a gold buffet service piece including a cup and candlesticks. The prize is valued at $7,000 and is the first Derby presentation of its kind. 1924 – Black Gold wins the 50th running of the Kentucky Derby, and he receives a trophy, exactly like the one presented today.

1925 – The first network radio broadcast of the Kentucky Derby takes place on May 16th, with about 5 to 6 million listeners tuning in to hear Flying Ebony win the Derby. Also, notable in the year, the phrase “Run for the Roses®” is coined by Bill Corum, a sports columnist for the New York Evening Journal and the New York Journal - American.

1930 – Gallant Fox wins the Derby, and the term Triple Crown is officially used by the New York Times to describe his combined wins in the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes.

1931 – The Kentucky Derby is permanently scheduled for the first Saturday in May, as opposed to an undetermined date in mid-May. The move was largely due to the popularity of the idea of a Triple Crown winner, and allowed for a consistent racing schedule for horses that would participate in the three races – The Kentucky Derby, followed by the Preakness Stakes, followed by the Belmont Stakes.

1932 – Despite the Great Depression, the Kentucky Derby race continues to take place and has much to celebrate. The race is internationally broadcast, reaching England’s British Broadcasting Company, and the winner, Burgoo King, is the first Kentucky Derby winner to be draped in a garland of red roses.

1938 – A tunnel is constructed under the racetrack that connects the grandstand, spectator seats to the field inside the racetrack, called the “infield”. Admission is 50 cents to enjoy the Derby from the infield. Lawrin wins the Derby and he is the first to take to a stand built in the infield for the official presentation to the Kentucky Derby winning horse.

1943 – Regardless of the war-time travel restrictions from World War II and no out-of-town tickets sold to the Kentucky Derby, 65,000 fans gather at Churchill Downs to see Count Fleet easily defeat the field at 2-5 odds.

1949 – The 75th Kentucky Derby is locally telecast for the first time, and Ponder wins the Derby.

1952 – The public exposure of the Kentucky Derby is expanded with the first national live television coverage in its history. An estimated 10 to 15 million viewers tune in to watch Hill Gale win the Derby.

1954 – The Kentucky Derby winning purse exceeds $100,000, and Determine is the horse to cash in.

1966 – The famed “Millionaires Row” dining room is introduced, and Kauai King wins the Derby.

1968 – Dancer’s Image is the first Derby winner to be disqualified. Following the race, Dancer’s Image tested positive for an illegal medication, so the purse is taken from him, and awarded to the second-place finisher Forward Pass, who is declared the winner.

1970 – Diane Crump is the first female jockey to ride in the Kentucky Derby race. Crump finished 15th out of 18 horses in the field; and even though her Derby race wasn’t a win, she brought women to the forefront of horse racing. Dust Commander wins the Derby.

1973 – In the 99th running of the Kentucky Derby, Secretariat wins with the fastest finishing time to date. Secretariat completed the race in 1:59:40, and went on to win the Triple Crown, for the first time in 25 years.

1974 – The second largest crowd in the history of U.S. Thoroughbred racing watches Cannonade win the 100th Derby. There were a total of 163,628 fans at Churchill Downs to watch the race, which also had a record large field size of 23 horses.

1977 – Seattle Slew wins the Kentucky Derby and goes on to win the Triple Crown. He is the 10th Triple Crown winner, and the only horse to take that title while also undefeated.

1978 – Affirmed wins the Kentucky Derby and goes on to win the Triple Crown. 

1984 – The Kentucky Derby is simulcast at 24 racetracks across the nation, allowing those racetracks to live wager on the Kentucky Derby race. A North American record is set for wagering on a single race, at $18,941,933. Swale wins the Derby.

1985 – The Kentucky Derby Museum is opened on the grounds of Churchill Downs Racetrack just one week before the Kentucky Derby is run. The museum’s mission was, and still is, to continue to preserve the history and to share the fun of the Kentucky Derby experience. Spend A Buck wins the Derby.

1986 – The home of the Kentucky Derby race, Churchill Downs Racetrack, is formally placed on the register of National Historic Landmarks. Ferdinand wins the Derby.

1988 – Winning Colors wins the Derby, she is only the third filly in racing history to capture the Kentucky Derby win.

1995 – Thunder Gulch wins the Derby, when the purse is increased to $1 million.

1996 – The Kentucky Derby general admission price is raised to $30; it was only 50 cents when it was first opened in 1938. Grindstone wins the Derby.

1999 – The Kentucky Derby celebrates its 125 running, and Charismatic wins the race. This is the first year Kentucky Derby fans are able to place Future Wagers. The Future Wager allows fans to bet on contenders leading up to the Derby race, when the odds are higher and there is an opportunity to win more money if the contender wins.

2000 – This year marked the third century in which the Kentucky Derby was run; Fusaichi Pegasus wins the Kentucky Derby.

2004 – The Kentucky Derby winner is Smarty Jones, and he is later featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

2006 – Barbaro wins the Kentucky Derby, by six and a half lengths; the largest victory since 1946. Barbaro was injured just weeks later in the Preakness Stakes, and passed away after complications of that injury. He was a Kentucky Derby fan favorite, and a bronze statue is placed above his remains at the entrance of Churchill Downs Racetrack.

2012 – The 138th Kentucky Derby was a record-setting year. I’ll Have Another wins the race in front of the highest attended Kentucky Derby of 165,307 fans. Wagering also set a record, with $133.1 million wagered on the Kentucky Derby race across all-sources.

2015 – American Pharoah wins the Kentucky Derby and goes on to win the Triple Crown. He breaks a Triple Crown drought lasting over 30 years.

2018 – Justify wins the Kentucky Derby and continues on to clinch the Triple Crown. He is the last horse to date to win the Triple Crown.

Learn more about the Kentucky Derby and its history:
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