Kentucky Derby History and Trivia

Updated on March 25, 2020
harrynielsen profile image

Harry is a longtime horseracing fan who also writes about history, music, and science.

A Modern-Day Race at Churchill Downs
A Modern-Day Race at Churchill Downs | Source

The Big Race

The big race that occurs at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May has often been called "the most exciting two minutes in sports." If the Derby is not the most exciting two minutes, it is at least one of the notable events of the yearly sports calendar.

The lead-up to this event is incredible—not only does it involve the breeding and training of over a dozen racehorses, but it also involves a fashion show, other races, a mingling of the owners, and a massive worldwide following that faithfully tunes in to witness the annual "run for the roses." There is no other social sporting event quite like it.

Every year, a new logo is chosen for the Kentucky Derby. Pictured above is the design for Derby #144.
Every year, a new logo is chosen for the Kentucky Derby. Pictured above is the design for Derby #144.

Sex Discrimination at the Kentucky Derby

As of 2013, fillies are no longer allowed to race in the Kentucky Derby, though they can still compete in the other two legs of the Triple Crown. In effect, this bans a filly from winning the Triple Crown, even though this has never happened before. In the past, the mares have been a long shot to take home the roses, as only three have won this race since the contest began back in 1875. The last lady horse to cross the finish line ahead of the pack was Winning Colors, who took first back in 1988. Nonetheless, the Derby Oaks, a girls-only race that occurs a few days before the Derby at Churchill Downs, is still a big, well-attended event.

A Brief History of Churchill Downs

The 143 Years of Running for the Roses

In 2008, the Kentucky Derby celebrated 143 years of horseracing history at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. Though the place looks much different than it did back in 1875, racing fans still come out in droves to watch the thoroughbreds run. At the first Run for the Roses, ten thousand racing fans showed up to watch fifteen horses take part in the 1.5-mile race. Today, that on-site crowd has grown to nearly 200,000, while millions more watch the two-minute sporting event on TV.

Over the years, the derby has proved to be a very durable contest, as even two world wars and a disastrous economic depression have not halted the race.

This composite photo shows how Churchill Downs looked in 1902.
This composite photo shows how Churchill Downs looked in 1902. | Source

Beneath the Famous Twin Spires

The now-famous Churchill Downs grandstand with the twin spires did not open until 1895. Before that time, sports fans watched the derby from a much simpler seating arrangement. In recent years, the stands have been substantially improved, as the "Downs" now include a "Millionaire's Row" (a selective seating and dining area located high in the stands) along with a 12-million dollar outdoor video board that is 90 feet tall and 171 feet wide.

A Few Numbers

No matter how you look at it, a lot of money changes hands on Kentucky Derby Day. First of all, there is the money that goes to the owner of the first place horse. In 2017, that amount reached two million and is expected to stay at that level for a while. And if you desire general admission tickets, just one of those will set you back $60, if they're even available. And if, by chance, your horse wins the derby, don't expect to get rich—the best payoff on a two-dollar bet was in 1913, when a horse called Donerail earned 184 dollars. (That was an awful lot of money back then.)

Overall, nearly $200 million will be bet on the derby with approximately $150 million being paid out to winning tickets. About 170,000 racing fans will attend the race with most paying $20 for a shuttle ticket. Finally, the stay at home and watch it on TV gang will number around 15 million.

Two derby attendees proudly display their headware.
Two derby attendees proudly display their headware. | Source

About Those Hats

It has been estimated that about 90% of all women who attend the derby adorn themselves with some sort of headgear. The top end of these hats can fall in the $500 to $1,000 range, and each hat can take up to seven days to make. Nonetheless, despite their high prices, thousands of hats find their way to Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. These hats provide a noticeable display that is almost as important as the race itself.

On Derby Day, over 120,000 mint juleps will be served at Churchill Downs.
On Derby Day, over 120,000 mint juleps will be served at Churchill Downs.

Food and Alcohol Consumption at the Kentucky Derby

Though popular, Mint juleps are not the only alcoholic beverage to see large sales, for just over a half a million cans of beer will also be sold. Compare this to the 127 thousand mint juleps. To make all these mixed drinks, a half-ton of fresh mint will be required. So you can see that the vendors at Churchill Downs will in for a busy day come Kentucky Derby Day.

After the Race Is Over

Questions & Answers

  • What year was the starting gate first used in the Kentucky Derby?

    The presently-used starting gate was designed by Clay Pruett in the late 30s. It was first used in the U.S and Canada in 1939 and by late 1940 in was common at most tracks in these two countries.The Brits were much slower to take on the modern starting gate.

© 2018 Harry Nielsen


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    • harrynielsen profile imageAUTHOR

      Harry Nielsen 

      23 months ago from Durango, Colorado

      Agreed, the Kentucky Derby is a major sporting event with a long, rich history.


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