As most racing enthusiasts could guess, the Kentucky Derby was established in an attempt to give the United States a racing occasion as grand and important as the original Derby, first run at Epsom Downs in England in 1780.
The Kentucky Derby was the brainchild of Meriwether Lewis Clark, the grandson of famed explorer William Clark of Lewis and Clark fame. While visiting Europe in 1872, he watched the Derby and one of France’s greatest races, the Grand Prix de Paris, and was inspired to create an American equivalent.
Clark’s uncles John and Henry Churchill subsequently gifted him some land to develop a racetrack in Louisville. Clark and some local race fans established the Louisville Jockey Club, which raised funds to build a track. It opened on May 17, 1875, hosting the first Kentucky Derby, won by Aristides.
Clark’s vision has more than succeeded, with the Kentucky Derby taking on a life of its own, just as grand but quite distinct from the Derby at Epsom. And even though air travel has made it possible for horses to contest both races, few have done so. One notable horse to do so was Dr Devious, who finished seventh in the 1992 Kentucky Derby before heading back across the Atlantic to win at Epsom.
But though it’s named after the Epsom event, the Churchill Downs classic arguably has had more historic links over the years to another great English racing event which is even older than the Derby: Royal Ascot.
Ascot racecourse was founded by Queen Anne in 1711. According to the Ascot website, a Royal four-day meet had been established by 1768, though it didn’t start to take something similar to its modern shape until 1807, the date of the first Ascot Gold Cup.
Kentucky horses began running at Ascot in the 19th century. The best was probably James Keene’s colt Foxhall. Sent to England, Foxhall won the Grand Prix de Paris at Longchamp in 1881, and the following year won the Ascot Gold Cup.
Between the two world wars, two Kentucky Derby winners went close to winning the Gold Cup. Reigh Count finished second in 1929 to Invershin, and Triple Crown winner Omaha was beaten by a short head in 1936 by Quashed.
No Kentucky Derby winners returned to Ascot until 2013, when Animal Kingdom finished down the track in the Queen Anne Stakes. California Chrome was aimed at the meeting two years later but was injured beforehand and didn’t start. However, with the success of Wesley Ward’s horses and Queen Anne Stakes winner Tepin, Royal Ascot is a firm target again for American trainers.
Other than the great horses, the most notable attendee is always the reigning monarch, and HH Queen Elizabeth II is an avid thoroughbred racing fan. Her arrival at the course in a horse-drawn carriage at the beginning of each day is a highlight. She also attends the Epsom Derby most years.
The Queen has also visited Kentucky regularly to visit mares she has based on the bluegrass, and in 2007 she attended her first Kentucky Derby, watching Street Sense win.