The history of the Kentucky Derby and Churchill Downs begins in 1872, when 26-year-old Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark, grandson of the famous explorer William Clark, traveled to Europe and attended the Epsom Derby in England, inspiring his lifelong passion and creation of the Kentucky Derby.
The colonel's love for horse racing began in childhood. He was raised by his two uncles, John and Henry Churchill, who were horse racing enthusiasts and young Lutie, as Clark was known, came to share his uncles’ passion. During his visit to the Epsom Derby, he became friends with members of the French Jockey Club, a group that developed the Grand Prix de Paris Longchamps horse race. After his trip, Clark was determined to create a horse racing spectacle in the States.
His relatives backed this idea and he was given 88 acres of family land to develop a racetrack in Louisville, Kentucky. Clark formed the Louisville Jockey Club with other local horse racing enthusiasts. The club raised money to build the grandstand, Porter’s lodge and six stables by selling race track memberships for $100 each.
On May 17, 1875, the first Derby was hosted by the Louisville Jockey Club. Roughly 10,000 spectators attended and the winner of the first Kentucky Derby was Aristides. At the time, the race was a mile and a half long. In 1896, the Derby changed to its current length of one and a quarter mile.
1875 First Kentucky Derby
1883 The racetrack is branded “Churchill Downs.”
1894 With the Derby growing in popularity, a new grandstand was developed. The 285-foot grandstand, topped by the Twin Spires, became known as the symbol of both Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby. The first Kentucky Derby with the new grandstand was in 1895.
1896 For the first time, the winning jockey received a floral arrangement of white and pink roses. At the time, the floral arrangement was shaped into a horseshoe and draped over the winning jockey.
1903 A profit is earned for the first time since the Derby’s creation.
1904 Red roses are declared the official flower of the Kentucky Derby.
1919 Sir Barton, a chestnut thoroughbred colt, became the first horse to win the Triple Crown. He won all three races and an additional race in the span of 32 days. He was honored as the 1919 American Horse of the Year.
1925 The Kentucky Derby is broadcast on radio for the first time, on WHAS Louisville, Kentucky. Almost 6 million fans tuned in to hear Flying Ebony win the 51st running of the Derby. Also in 1925, Bill Corum, a sports columnist at the New York Evening Journal and the New York Journal-American, famously coined the Kentucky Derby as the “Run for the Roses.”
1952 For the first time, the Kentucky Derby is broadcast nationally on television. An estimated 10-15 million watched Hill Gale, a dark bay horse, win the Derby.
1973 Secretariat runs the fastest Derby of all-time in 1:59:40. He went on to win the Triple Crown and American Horse of the Year.
1978 Affirmed wins the Triple Crown.
1986 Churchill Downs is registered as a National Historic Landmark. Willie Shoemaker became the oldest jockey to win the Kentucky Derby at age 54 with his horse, Ferdinand.
2015 American Pharoah wins the Kentucky Derby and the Triple Crown for the first time since Affirmed in 1978.
The Rose Garland
The stunning rose garland that is presented to the Derby winner has a vibrant history to match. Ben Brush, the Derby winner in 1896, was the recipient of the first rose garland. However, the garland did not look like it does today; it was woven together with pink and white roses, rather than the traditional red. In 1925, after the red rose had been named the official flower of the Derby, the race was coined the “Run for the Roses.” The garland is covered with over 400 red freedom roses, weighs 40 pounds and is over 10 feet long. Grocery retailer Kroger has been crafting the Derby’s rose garlands by hand since 1987, and people congregate in one of Kroger’s Kentucky stores to watch the garland made on Derby eve.
Kentucky Derby Hats
The Derby has provided the perfect setting to flaunt the season’s latest fashions. Kentucky Derby hats became ostentatious by midcentury, attracting attention from the Derby’s crowds and viewers watching the race on television. Hats are rumored to bring good luck to the races, so a wide variety of chic and whimsical chapeaus are worn each year. Thanks to the rising popularity of fascinators, the hat tradition has grown. Debut your hat or fascinator the day before the Derby at the Longines Kentucky Oakes Fashion Contest for the chance to win a Longines watch.
The Winners Circle
The walk to the Kentucky Derby Winners Circle is a custom celebrated since the first race. Originally just a chalk outline, the circle has changed drastically since it held the first Derby winner in 1875. In 1944, the Winners Circle was transformed into the icon we see today. The horseshoe-shaped landscape is laden with 2,100 roses, and makes an ideal location for photographs with the Derby winner. Couples have tied the knot in the Winners Circle, and some horse racing legends have had their ashes spread across the sacred grounds.