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What is the Kentucky Derby?

By Grayson Millar
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Kentucky Derby is an annual 1.25-mile horse race for three-year-old Thoroughbreds held at Churchill Downs Racetrack in Louisville, Kentucky. It ranks first in attendance among American Thoroughbred Racing events and is the first of three legs in the Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing, which also includes The Preakness Stakes and The Belmont Stakes. It is one of the only American Thoroughbred Racing events that draws a wide audience from outside the horse racing world. It also is known as "The Run for the Roses," because a blanket of roses is awarded to the winning horse, and as "the most exciting two minutes in sports."

Started in 1875, the Kentucky Derby is one of the longest-running thoroughbred horse races in the United States. It was started by Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr., who had attended several horse races in England and France while visiting Europe in 1872. The Bluegrass Region of Kentucky, Clark's home, was known for raising race horses, and Clark formed the Louisville Racing Club to secure funds to build a race track. Clark eventually founded Churchill Downs, which is named after Henry and John Churchill, relatives of Clark on whose land the track was built.

The Kentucky Derby originally was 1.5-miles long, in accordance with the races Clark had attended in Europe, but it was changed to 1.25 miles in 1896. The first Kentucky Derby featured 15 horses before an audience of 10,000 people, and it was won by the colt Aristides, ridden by Oliver Lewis. More than half of the first 28 annual races were won by horses ridden by black jockeys. After a successful inaugural race, the Kentucky Derby had serious financial difficulties until 1902, when Churchill Downs was acquired by a group of businessmen led by Colonel Matt Winn. Ever since, the Kentucky Derby has been the most successful and well-known three-year-old stakes horse race in the U.S.

The popularity of the Kentucky Derby resulted in its first television broadcast in 1952, and it has been broadcast every year since then. Starting in 2004, jockeys have been allowed to advertise corporations by wearing corporate logos on their clothing. Along with the race, The Kentucky Derby also is a major attraction because of the party atmosphere that surrounds it. A key symbol of the atmosphere is the mint julep, the race's official drink, which is made with bourbon, mint and simple syrup on ice.

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