This Day in History: The Kentucky Derby, a “grand slice of Americana”
On this day in 1875, the first Kentucky Derby is run. The Derby has been described as a “grand slice of Americana”! No wonder? Early foundations for the race can be found as early as 1783, nearly a decade before Kentucky entered the Union.
That was the year that city officials had to address horse racing on city streets. People were racing their horses in the middle of downtown Louisville! It was disruptive, to say the least.
But there’s another factor that perhaps adds to the quintessentially American nature of the event. The founder of the Kentucky Derby was none other than Meriwether Lewis (“Lutie”) Clark, Jr. The name sounds familiar for a reason: Lutie was the grandson of explorer William Clark, co-leader of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
In 1872, Lutie Clark was recruited by locals who wanted to revive horse racing in Kentucky. Clark was soon in Europe, investigating the practices of successful race tracks such as England’s Epsom Downs. He returned to America, prepared to create a spectacle horse racing event that would draw high society. He created the Louisville Jockey Club and raised funds. He built his new racetrack on land owned by his uncles, John and Henry Churchill.
That track finally opened on May 17, 1875.
A surprisingly large crowd of 10,000 people was in attendance. Fifteen 3-year-old Thoroughbreds competed in the Derby, and a horse named Aristides set an American record as he won. Spectators were dressed to the nines. They were pampered. They were entertained.
The Derby was off to a roaring start!
Unfortunately, human nature intervened? A squabble with bookmakers nearly derailed the entire enterprise. The Derby was boycotted, and the racetrack operated in the red for years. Clark himself could be difficult to work with, and he was beginning to get sidelined in his own venture. Sadly, these and other difficulties prompted Clark to commit suicide in 1899.
All might have been lost but for the intervention of Col. Matt J. Winn. He was a natural salesman. He courted locals and convinced many to bring their horses back. When antigambling “reform” movements overtook the nation, he outwitted local officials and kept his race running. But the crowning achievement came in 1915: He’d convinced a New Yorker by the name of Harry Payne Whitney to bring his filly, Regret, to the Derby.
Regret crushed the boys that year! She was the first filly to win the race, and her owner’s enthusiasm secured the Derby’s reputation. “I do not care if [Regret] never wins another race, or if she never starts in another race,” Whitney said at the time. “She has won the greatest race in America, and I am satisfied.”
The Derby has changed in many ways over the years: The length of the race was altered. Grandstands were built. Roses became a tradition. The Derby’s schedule became more regular to accommodate the Preakness and the Belmont—and to allow for the possibility of a Triple Crown.
Yet, in the midst of it all, the Derby did something more important: It persevered. Through boycotts and financial difficulties, it never took a break, not even for the World Wars or the Great Depression.
Today, of course, all that endurance has paid off. The Derby is a raging success. It is not only a slice of “Americana,” but it is a testament to what American perseverance and determination can accomplish.
Surely Lutie Clark would be proud.
James C. Nicholson, The Kentucky Derby: How the Run for the Roses Became America’s Premier Sporting Event (2012)
James J. Holmberg, Curator of Special Collections, Filson Historical Society, The Clark Family and the Kentucky Derby
Jim Bolus, Kentucky Derby Stories (1993)
Kentucky Derby History (Kentucky Derby website)
Kentucky Derby Museum: Trivia and Fun Facts (website)
Kris Applegate, Legendary Locals of Louisville (2014)
Laura Hillenbrand, The Derby (American Heritage Magazine; May/June 1999)
The History of Churchill Downs (Churchill Downs website)