Ten important figures in Kentucky Derby history

Apr 29, 2016 Vance Hanson/Brisnet.com

More than 140 years after its inception, the Kentucky Derby is one of the most popular sporting and social events in the country, and a countless number of individuals through the decades have made a significant impact on the race's founding, rise in popularity, and overall history.

In chronological order, here are 10 important figures that helped make the Kentucky Derby what it is today.

The 12th Earl of Derby — Edward-Smith Stanley, an English nobleman, is the man who leant his titular name to a race for three-year-old colts proposed in 1779 and run for the first time the following year at Epsom Downs. Stanley won a coin toss with Sir Charles Bunbury to see who would have the honor of naming the race, and henceforth the name 'Derby' has been affixed to dozens of similar races run throughout the world.

Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark — The grandson of famed explorer William Clark, Col. Clark founded the Louisville Jockey Club, which began racing on the present Derby site in 1875 on land once owned by his mother's family, the Churchills. In addition to carding the inaugural Kentucky Derby on the track's first-ever program, on May 17, 1875, Clark contributed to American racing in other ways, including the introduction of the pari-mutuel form of betting to the U.S.

Col. Matt Winn — Arguably the most important figure in Derby history, Winn's management and promotional flair of the Kentucky Derby brand in the early 20th century turned what was then a provincial and undervalued race into the most prestigious and lucrative one in the country. The man behind the enlargement of the Churchill facilities (including the addition of the famous Twin Spires) seized an opportunity in the early to mid-1910s, when major racing centers in the East closed or were financially troubled, to enrich the Derby purse and successfully court the Eastern sportsmen who, to that point, had generally shunned racing in 'the West.'

Harry Payne Whitney — One of those Eastern sportsmen, the scion of one racing's great families, came under the spell of Winn's overtures and sent his filly Regret to run in the 1915 Derby. Undefeated facing colts the previous summer in the Saratoga Special, Sanford, and Hopeful at Saratoga, Regret gave the country's best colts their comeuppance once again, leading all the way in her first start since August. In the wake of victory, Whitney gave the Derby the credibility Winn sought, which it has never relinquished. 'I do not care if she never wins another race, nor if she ever starts in another race, she has won the greatest race in America and I am satisfied,' he said.

Col. E.R. Bradley — No owner/breeder coveted the Kentucky Derby quite like Col. Bradley, a self-described 'gambler' by profession who started a record 28 horses in the Run for the Roses from 1920-45. He was successful four times, with Behave Yourself (1921), Bubbling Over (1926), Burgoo King (1932), and the maiden Brokers Tip (1933), but unluckily lost the Derby with, arguably, his two best horses: Blue Larkspur and Bimelech. So focused on success in the Derby was Bradley, his stable's trainer came to be known as 'Derby Dick' Thompson.

Stephen Foster — The great 19th century composer's contribution to the Kentucky Derby, which was first run 11 years after his death, is his song 'My Old Kentucky Home,' the singing of which during the race's post parade has become one the event's oldest and most noteworthy traditions. An act of the Kentucky state legislature in 1928 made it the commonwealth's state song, and the first reports of it being played on Derby Day occurred around 1930.

Ben & H.A. 'Jimmy' Jones — The 'Jones Boys,' father Ben and son Jimmy, won a collective eight Derbies, seven for the famed Calumet Farm stable. With six wins, Ben Jones is the all-time leading trainer of Derby winners, saddling Lawrin (1938), Whirlaway (1941), Pensive (1944), Citation (1948), Ponder (1949), and Hill Gail (1952), while Jimmy, originally his father's assistant, later won with Iron Liege (1957) and Tim Tam (1958). The Joneses also trained three Derby runners-up, most famously running one-two in the 1948 edition with Citation and Coaltown.

Bill Hartack — Though not as big a personality and famous as Eddie Arcaro, with whom he shares the record for most wins by a jockey in Kentucky Derby history, Hartack holds the distinction of possessing the highest win percentage among riders with at least 10 Derby mounts. Arcaro won aboard five of his 21 Derby mounts, including Triple Crown winners Whirlaway and Citation, but Hartack booted home five Derby winners from just 12 mounts (a remarkable 41.7 percent clip). All of them came in a 13-year span from 1957-69 and included Hall of Famers Northern Dancer (1964) and Majestic Prince (1969).

Jim Bolus — The late Louisville Courier-Journal and Louisville Times reporter, who passed away prematurely in 1997, became the foremost chroniclor of the Kentucky Derby, authoring numerous books on the race's history and its most memorable stories. A member of the National Turf Writers Association and recipient of numerous industry writing awards, Bolus was also a curator of the Kentucky Derby Museum, located next door to Churchill Downs. Through Bolus' tireless efforts, the first century and a quarter of the Derby story is well-documented and preserved for the enjoyment of future generations.

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