The Kentucky Derby is an eagerly awaited annual stakes race featuring three-year-old thoroughbred horses.
This horse race, of national and international fame, is held at Churchill Downs racetrack in Louisville, Kentucky, on the first Saturday in May, capping the two-week-long Kentucky Derby Festival.
The race currently covers a mile and a quarter; colts and geldings carry 126 pounds, fillies 121.
Popularly referred as "The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports" for its approximate time length, the race is the first leg of the Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing in the United States. The race draws a live crowd of about 150,000 racing fans and millions of TV viewers from around the globe.
Organized horse racing in the State of Kentucky dates back to the late 1700s when several race courses were started in and around the city of Louisville.
In 1787, The Commons, a park-like block near Lexington's Race Street was used by horsemen for racing. The complaints of “safety-minded" people led to the establishment of a race meet at The Commons by 1789.
The history of horse racing in Louisville can be traced back to 1783 when local sources reported that races were held on Market Street in the downtown area.
To solve the problem of racing on the busy city thoroughfare, a race course was formed at the now-abandoned Shippingport Island, in 1805. Racing was staged on the island in the Ohio River at what was called Elm Tree Gardens.
In 1872, Colonel M. Lewis Clark traveled to England, visiting the Epsom Derby, a famous race which had been running annually since 1780.
From there, he went to Paris and visited the French Jockey Club. Returning home to Kentucky, Clark founded the Louisville Jockey Club for raising the funds to establish quality racing facilities just outside of the city.
In 1875, Churchill Downs was officially opened and began its tradition as "Home of the Kentucky Derby." The track was named Churchill Downs, after John and Henry Churchill, who leased 80 acres of land for their nephew, Colonel Clark. The track was incorporated as Churchill Downs in 1937.
The Kentucky Derby was first run at a mile and a half, but in 1896, the distance was changed to the current mile and a quarter.
On May 17, 1875, the first Derby was attended by a field of 15 three-year horses, in front of an estimated crowd of 10,000 people.
Though the first race meet was a great success, the track ran into financial crisis, and in 1894, the New Louisville Jockey Club was incorporated with new capitalization and enhanced facilities.
The business staggered, however, until 1902, when Colonel Matt Winn of Louisville put together a syndicate of businessmen to acquire the facility.
Under Winn’s guidance, Churchill Downs prospered and the Kentucky Derby became the most famous thoroughbred horse race in the nation.