The origins of the Kentucky Derby date all the way back to 1872. That is the year that Meriwether Lewis Clark, grandson of the famous explorer William Clark, traveled to England to watch a horse race known as the Epsom Derby. Clark also spent a lot of time socializing with members of the French Jockey Club. That group later formed a well-known race in France called the Grand Prix de Paris Longchamps.
The experiences he had with horse racing in England and France prompted Clark to develop a horse race that received the same level of attention. His uncles John and Henry Churchill gave Clark the necessary funds to create a racetrack that he named Churchill Downs.
With assistance from the Kentucky Jockey Club that he created, Churchill Downs hosted the first Kentucky Derby on May 17, 1875. That was also opening day for the racetrack. The race participants consisted of 15 three-year-old Thoroughbred horses. This tradition remains today except the number of horses competing has increased to 20. Aristides won the first Kentucky Derby in front of a crowd of approximately 10,000 people.
Today, the Derby attracts over 150,000 live spectators annually, and over 16 million more through TV broadcasting. During an average Kentucky Derby weekend, over 120,000 Mint Juleps are served, just one of many unique traditions.
The Tradition of the Winning Horse Receiving a Garland of Roses
As any serious horseracing fan knows, the Kentucky Derby has dozens of traditions associated with it. One of the first traditions of placing a blanket of roses on the winning horse is almost as old as the Kentucky Derby itself. Meriwether Clark decorated the post-race party area with roses within the first few years of opening his racetrack.
It became an annual tradition by the 1890s for the winning horse to receive a garland of more than 500 roses. The tradition became so widely accepted that horseracing announcers began to refer to the Kentucky Derby as the “Race for the Roses” by 1925.
Women Wearing Big Hats at the Kentucky Derby
The large, ornate hats worn by women at today’s Kentucky Derby is a throwback to a time when this was the style. Since Meriwether Clark patterned the Kentucky Derby after the Epsom Derby in England, it’s only natural that style patterns from the race transferred to the United States as well.
Race promoters also used photos of women in big hats to promote the race to female spectators. Today, groups of women attending the Kentucky Derby have fun with this tradition to see who can select the largest or most outrageous hat as part of her outfit.
Gambling at the Kentucky Derby
Although gambling had been part of the Kentucky Derby since its inception, several progressive groups sought to ban the practice at the racetracks by the early 1900s. This would have had a disastrous effect on the Kentucky Derby and all horseracing in the United States.
Matthew Winn, chairman of the race from 1902 until his death in 1949, came up with parimutuel betting, an alternative form of gambling that eliminated the need for bookies. France had introduced this technology more than 20 years earlier, so Winn sought help from the French in locating the machines and transporting them to Kentucky.
The 145th annual Kentucky Derby takes place this year on Saturday, May 4 at Churchill Downs.