Kentucky Derby Trivia and Fun Facts

An Introduction to the Kentucky Derby – the “Greatest Two Minutes in Sports”

The Kentucky Derby was first run on a Monday afternoon, May 17, 1875. The day was sunny and warm as 15 3-year-old Thoroughbreds lined up to compete in the first Kentucky Derby at the brand-new track on property owned by a prominent Louisville family, the Churchills. A huge crowd of around 10,000 were on hand to see Aristides set the pace and fight off all challengers to win the inaugural Kentucky Derby. He was ridden to victory by jockey Oliver Lewis, one of the 13 African-American jockeys who rode in the race. This event marked the first chapter to a race that today is the longest running continuous sporting event in the United States.

The race was started by Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., grandson of the famous explorer William Clark of Lewis and Clark fame. Clark travelled to Europe to study how horse racing was conducted, and upon returning to Kentucky, became the leader of a group called the Louisville Jockey Club. This group built a racetrack on property owned by Clark’s uncles, John and Henry Churchill. The track was not called Churchill Downs until at least 1883, and was not officially the name of the track until 1928. Clark wanted the featured race to be patterned after the great race in England, the Epsom Derby, a race for 3-year old Thoroughbreds at a distance of one mile and a half. The Derby distance was changed to one mile and a quarter in 1896 and remains that distance today.

Although the Derby got off to a great start, by the late 1880s, the race struggled and by 1894, the Louisville Jockey Club was ready to declare bankruptcy. A new group bought the property, calling themselves the New Louisville Jockey Club. They made many changes to the track, the most striking being a new grandstand which featured two large “twin spires.” The spires are now a symbol of not just the track, but of the state of Kentucky. Despite the changes, this new group could not turn a profit, and in 1902, a new group led by Louisville tailor Matt Winn took over the track.

It was Winn who turned the Kentucky Derby into what it is today. Winn understood the Derby needed to be more than just a two-minute horse race. He wanted celebrities, traditions, legends and even hats to all become a big part of Derby Day. He tirelessly promoted the Derby, and the race started to become the place to be. Winn also started the tradition of hosting the race on the First Saturday in May, after the Derby had previously been run on every other day of the week except Sunday before he took over.

There were several legendary horses that got the Derby noticed. In 1913, a huge long-shot named Donerail shocked the crowd by winning at odds of 91-1, still the biggest to ever win the race. Two years later in 1915, a filly (female horse) named Regret beat the colts, becoming the first of three fillies to win the Derby. In 1919, Sir Barton won the Derby – then won the Preakness in Baltimore and the Belmont in New York to become the first Triple Crown champion.

The Derby continued to grow in popularity under the leadership of Winn. The 1930s and 1940s are generally considered the glory years of Thoroughbred racing, as seven horses won the Triple Crown. Kentucky’s own Calumet Farm won the Derby eight times from 1941 to 1968. Jockey Eddie Arcaro rode five Derby winners, including riding two Triple Crown champions in Whirlaway (1941) and Citation (1948).

Perhaps the greatest performance by a Thoroughbred in the Derby was that of Secretariat in 1973. He set the track record that stands to this day, running the race in 1:59.40. Monarchos, the 2001 Derby winner, is the only other horse to win the race in under two minutes. Secretariat, or “Big Red” as he was known, went on to become a national hero because of his dominance on the racetrack.

Today, the Kentucky Derby averages around 155,000 in attendance and millions more watching on televisions all around the world. Thoroughbred breeders from around the world dream of visiting the Churchill Downs Winner’s Circle, but currently, 106 of the 140 winners were bred in Kentucky. The bluegrass region of Kentucky is known as the “racehorse capitol of the world.”

The Thoroughbred industry in Kentucky is one of the leading economic industries in the state, with around $3.1 billion in revenue generated. The Kentucky Derby itself is also a great economic event for Kentucky, with around $160 million spent in Louisville Derby weekend.

The Kentucky Derby is many things to many people. To some it’s a great sporting event, with the fastest Thoroughbreds running at speeds of over 40 miles per hour, trying to win the race. To others, the Derby is a great cultural event, with traditions to be honored and stories to be told. The Derby is also a great economic event, generating millions to the Kentucky economy. To most of us, it’s all three – and that’s what makes it the “Greatest Two Minutes in Sports.”

Frequently Asked Questions About the Kentucky Derby

How are horses entered in the Kentucky Derby?

The entry fee for the Kentucky Derby is $25,000, and there is another $25,000 fee if the horse enters the starting gate. Since the mid-1970s, no more than 20 Thoroughbreds may run in the Derby. Churchill Downs currently guarantees a purse of $2 million, with the winner receiving at least $1.24 million. The owner also receives the gold Derby Trophy, currently valued at about $95,000, which is the only gold trophy presented in major American sports. Owners must nominate their horses to be eligible for the Derby by paying a nomination fee of $600 per horse during the early period (usually through late January), $6,000 during the late period (usually through late March) or a “last minute” supplemental fee of $200,000. Trainers prepare the horses for the Kentucky Derby by running them in various races around the country during the late winter and spring. These races are referred to as “prep” races and points are awarded based on top four finishes, with the top 20 horses earning the opportunity to compete in the upcoming Kentucky Derby.

What are the Kentucky Derby records?

What are the well-known Kentucky Derby traditions?

There are many great Kentucky Derby traditions that have developed over the years. The most famous include the singing of My Old Kentucky Home as the horses come onto the track before the race, the wearing of Derby hats that range from very elegant to very silly, the Garland of Roses that is placed on the winner’s back immediately after the race in the Winner’s Circle and the gold Derby Trophy.

The Kentucky Derby has given rise to the Kentucky Derby Festival, a two-week community celebration, as well as countless parties and family gatherings held around Louisville and by relocated or “adopted” Kentuckians around the world. Famous Derby nicknames include “the Run for the Roses” which refers to the Garland of Roses, “the Chance of a Lifetime” because a horse can only run in the Derby one time and “the Greatest Two Minutes in Sports” because it takes on average just over two minutes to run the Derby.

The Education Department at the Kentucky Derby Museum welcomes any opportunities to assist teachers and students. If you need any additional information about the science, history, culture or economic impact of the Kentucky Derby and Thoroughbred racing, please call us at (502) 637-1111.