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Gala 2022: A Night At The Derby

History of the Kentucky Derby

Sources: "The Kentucky Derby's Forgotten Jockeys"  (Smithsonian), and "Kentucky Derby"  (History.com)

The Kentucky Derby, first held in 1875 at Churchill Downs racetrack in Louisville, is the longest-running sports event in the United States. Dubbed the “Run for the Roses,” the Derby features three-year-old thoroughbreds racing a distance of 1.25 miles. Today, some 150,000 spectators gather annually on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby, sometimes referred to as “the greatest two minutes in sports.” 

FIRST KENTUCKY DERBY

The Kentucky Derby was started by Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr., grandson of explorer William Clark, of Lewis and Clark Expedition fame. Clark, who was inspired by horse races he’d seen in Europe, raised the money to build Churchill Downs on land donated by his uncles.

In 1872, Clark traveled to Europe, where he visited leading horse-racing sites in England and France. He was inspired by England’s Epsom Downs racecourse, home since 1780 of the Derby Stakes, a 1.5-mile race for three-year-old horses organized by the 12th earl of Derby and his friends.

Clark returned home to Kentucky, founded the Louisville Jockey Club and raised money to construct a racetrack on land donated by his uncles, Henry and John Churchill. Famed for throwing extravagant parties, Clark envisioned his racetrack as a place where the city’s stylish residents would gather.

On May 17, 1875, some 10,000 people attended the first Kentucky Derby, which featured a field of 15 three-year-old thoroughbreds racing 1.5 miles. The winning horse, Aristides, finished with a time of 2:37.75 and was ridden by Oliver Lewis, an African-American jockey.

Thirteen of the fifteen jockeys in the inaugural Derby were black, and black riders played a dominant role in the race’s early years. Between 1875 and 1902, eleven black jockeys rode 15 of the winning horses.

African-American jockeys’ dominance in the world of racing is a history nearly forgotten today. Their participation dates back to colonial times, when the British brought their love of horseracing to the New World. Because racing was tremendously popular in the South, it is not surprising that the first black jockeys were enslaved people. Founding Fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson frequented the track, and when President Andrew Jackson moved into the White House in 1829, he brought along his best Thoroughbreds and his black jockeys. They cleaned the stables and handled the grooming and training of some of the country’s most valuable horseflesh. From such responsibility, enslaved people developed the abilities needed to calm and connect with Thoroughbreds, skills demanded of successful jockeys.

For Black jockeys in the 1800s, racing provided a false sense of freedom. They were allowed to travel the racing circuit, and some even managed their owners’ racing operation. They competed alongside whites. When black riders were cheered to the finish line, the only colors that mattered were the colors of their silk jackets, representing their stables. Horse racing was entertaining for white owners and enslaved people alike and one of the few ways for enslaved people to achieve status.

After the Civil War, which had devastated racing in the South, emancipated African-American jockeys followed the money to tracks in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. “African Americans had been involved in racing and with horses since the beginning,” says Anne Butler, director of Kentucky State University's Center for the Study of Kentucky African Americans. “By the time freedom came they were still rooted in the sport.”

The freed riders soon took center stage at the newly organized Kentucky Derby. On opening day, May 17, 1875, Oliver Lewis, a 19-year-old black native Kentuckian, rode Aristides, a chestnut colt trained by a former enslaved person, to a record-setting victory. Two years later William Walker, 17, claimed the race. Isaac Murphy became the first jockey to win three Kentucky Derbys, in 1884, 1890, and 1891, and won an amazing 44 percent of all the races he rode, a record still unmatched. Alonzo "Lonnie" Clayton, at 15 the youngest to win in 1892, was followed by James "Soup" Perkins, who began racing at age 11 and claimed the 1895 Derby. Willie Simms won in 1896 and 1898. Jimmy "Wink" Winkfield, victorious in 1901 and 1902, would be the last African American to win the world-famous race. Murphy, Simms and Winkfield have been inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, New York.

In 2005, Winkfield was also honored with a Congressional House Resolution, a few days before the 131st Derby. Such accolades came long after his death in 1974 at age 91 and decades after racism forced him and other black jockeys off American racetracks.

Despite Wink’s winning more than 160 races in 1901, Goodwin's Annual Official Guide to the Turf omitted his name. The rising scourge of segregation began seeping into horse racing in the late 1890s. Fanned by the Supreme Court's 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling that upheld the "separate but equal" doctrine, Jim Crow injustice pervaded every social arena, says Butler.

“White genteel class, remnants from that world, didn't want to share the bleachers with African American spectators, though blacks continued to work as groomers and trainers," she says.

Racism, coupled with the economic recessions of the period, shrunk the demand for black jockeys as racetracks closed and attendance fell. With intensified competition for mounts, violence on the tracks against black jockeys by white jockeys prevailed without recourse.

Winkfield received death threats from the Ku Klux Klan. Anti-gambling groups campaigned against racing, causing more closures and the northern migration of blacks from southern farming communities further contributed to the decline of black jockeys.

After his 1903 run in the Kentucky Derby, black Americans practically disappeared from Goodwin’s official list of jockeys. In 1911 Jess Conley came in third in the derby and in 1921, Henry King placed tenth. Seventy-nine years would pass before another African American would ride in the Derby. Marlon St. Julien took seventh place in 2000.

COLONEL MATT WINN

In 1902, a new management team took over Churchill Downs that included Martin “Matt” Winn, a Louisville native who was instrumental in transforming the Derby from a local event into America’s most iconic horse race.

In 1908, Winn, who eventually started using the honorary title “colonel,” played a key role in introducing a new system of placing bets at Churchill Downs, replacing human bookmakers with French pari-mutuel machines, a move that proved popular with race fans.

Winn also started the publicity-generating practice of inviting celebrities to the Derby, and advocated broadcasting the race on the radio, something other racing executives thought would hurt attendance numbers.

In 1925, the Derby aired on network radio for the first time; and afterward, attendance continued to grow. 1949 marked the first year the Derby was locally televised. Three years later, in 1952, the Kentucky Derby made its debut on national TV.

HORSES AND JOCKEYS

In 1973, Secretariat became the fastest Derby winner in history with a time of 1:59.40, a record that still stands.

Three years earlier, in 1970, Diane Crump became the first female jockey to ride in the Derby; she finished 15th in a field of 17 horses. Crump also broke ground in 1969, when she became the first woman to ride in a pari-mutuel race in North America, at Hialeah Park in Florida.

In 1986, 54-year-old Bill Shoemaker broke ground in a different way by becoming the oldest jockey to win the Derby.

Only a few fillies (female horses) have won the Derby; the first to do so was Regret, in 1915.

KENTUCKY DERBY TRADITIONS

The Derby is steeped in tradition, including some, such as mint juleps and “My Old Kentucky Home,” that link the race to a romanticized version of the Old South.

When the horses parade onto the dirt track before the start of the race, the crowd sings along to the 19th century ballad “My Old Kentucky Home” by composer Stephen Foster. According to some accounts, the song was first played at the Derby in 1921.

The mint julep—a drink that originated in the South and is made with bourbon, sugar, mint and crushed ice—has been a Derby tradition for nearly a century.

RUN FOR THE ROSES

Roses are another longtime Derby tradition. In 1884, Meriwether Clark started the practice of giving the winning jockey a bouquet of roses. In 1925, a New York sports columnist nicknamed the Derby the “Run for the Roses.” Since the early 1930s, it’s been customary to place a large garland of roses over the winning horse.

In the 1960s, spurred on in part by the presence of TV cameras at the Kentucky Derby, both male and female Derby-goers started the tradition of sporting fancy hats on race day.