This Saturday is the first Saturday in May, so you know what that means: it’s time for the 139th running of the one and only Kentucky Derby. The most famous horse race in America has long been billed as “the most exciting two minutes in sports,” and whether or not that is actually true, there can be no doubt that the Derby is one of the greatest sporting spectacles in the world. You’ve got a hundred thousand people partying on the infield, another fifty thousand or so up in the stands in their bow ties and fancy hats, a signature cocktail, a section of the grandstand called “millionaires row,” and, of course, one hell of a horse race. What’s not to like?
Today, in honor of Saturday’s big race, we present you with this list of Kentucky Derby facts you might not have known. We’re betting it will get you in the mood for one of the world’s greatest sporting events.
Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, was founded in 1875 by Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., the grandson of William Clark of the famous exploring duo Lewis and Clark. (Google it.) After the Southern aristocrat returned from a tour of Europe in 1873, where he visited race tracks in England and France, he convinced his cousins, John and Henry Churchill, to convert a portion of their family's 300-acre estate into a premier horse racing track. They did so in 1875, with the Churchill brothers providing the financial backing and Clark serving as the president and on-site manager.
15. The Founding of Churchill Downs
The very first Kentucky Derby was held in 1875, the very year Churchill Downs opened. It was contested by 15 three-year-old thoroughbreds in front of 10,000 spectators and was won by a colt named Aristedes, who was ridden by jockey Oliver Lewis.
Interestingly, that first race was 11⁄2 miles, and the Kentucky Derby remained a one and a half mile race for 21 years. It was only in 1896 that the distance was changed to the current 11⁄4 miles.
14. The First Derby
The Kentucky Derby was a half century old when it was first broadcast live on the radio. The year was 1925, and the 51st running of the Kentucky Derby was broadcast by WHAS in Louisville as well as WGN in Chicago. The first national television broadcast of the Derby came 27 years later. That came courtesy of WHAS-TV in Nashville, which at the time was a CBS affiliate.
Of course, since 2001 NBC has broadcast the Kentucky Derby as well as the other two legs of racing's Triple Crown today. Prior to that ABC had the Derby while CBS had the Preakness and the Belmont.
13. Radio & TV
Last year an estimated 165,000 people packed the grounds of Churchill Downs to see I'll Have Another ride to victory. That ties the Kentucky Derby with the events held at Bristol Motor Speedway as the sixth most-attended sporting event in the United States, behind only the Coca-Cola 600, the Daytona 500, the Talladega 500, the NRA 500, and the Indianapolis 500.
Of course, the Derby crowd is starkly divided into to categories: the wild drunken party people camping out (and mud wrestling) on the infield, and the well-dressed, well-to-do society types in the grandstand. And of course, even the grandstand has divisions. There are the "regular" sections of the grandstand, and there is "Millionaire's Row," which features outrageously expensive seats populated with the rich and famous.
Tickets for the GA infield cost $45 in advance, while ticket packages for the grandstand range from $600 to $6,000.
The official food of the Kentucky Derby is burgoo, a traditional southern stew containing beef, chicken, pork, and vegetables. It's almost certainly some sort of derivative of the classic French dish beef bourguignon, and it sounds absolutely delicious.
Of course, the official beverage of the Kentucky Derby is the mint julep. Though the classic bourbon, mint, and sugar cocktail wasn't invented at the Churchill Downs, it has been promoted there since 1938 and definitely owes its fame to the Kentucky Derby. And just in case you'd like to sip on a mint julep while you watch the Derby on Saturday, click here for a recipe and instructions.
11. Derby Food & Drink
Think all there is to do in Louisville this week is watch one two-minute horse race? Wrong. These days the Kentucky Derby is just the main event amidst a whole week of events called the Kentucky Derby Festival. The festival kicks off with "Thunder Over Louisville," which is a gigantic fireworks display. There there is the Great Balloon Race, the Great Steamboat Race, the Pegasus Parade, the Derby Marathon, and, finally, the Derby Oaks.
What is the Derby Oaks, you ask? Why it's the official sister race of the Kentucky Derby—literally. It's a Grade I stakes race for three-year-old thoroughbred fillies run the Friday before the Kentucky Derby.
10. The Kentucky Derby Festival
The winningest Jockey in Kentucky Derby history is...well, actually, there are two tied at five wins a piece. Eddie Arcaro won five times from 1938 to 1952, and Bill Hartack won five times from 1957 to 1969. Interestingly, though, neither of these gents won the race in consecutive years. That feat has been performed four times in the history of the Derby, most recently in 2009 and 2010 by Calvin Borel (pictured here), who has won three overall.
9. The Jockeys
No female jockey has ever won the Kentucky Derby. However, that doesn't mean women haven't made their mark. In 1904, Elwood became the first horse bred and owned by a woman to be both entered in and win the Kentucky Derby. He was owned by Laska Durnell and bred by J.B. Prather. By 1942, female owners were commonplace, and seven of the top eight finishers were owned by women.
Female trainers are less common at the Derby. Only 13 women have sent a total of 14 horses to the starting gates. And female jockeys are even fewer, totally just five. The first was Diane Crump in 1970 (pictured), and since then we've seen Patti Cooksey, Andrea Seefeldt, Julie Krone, and Rosemary Homiester. winning female owner as well.
This year, however, there is a female jockey with a pretty decent chance of winning. Her name is Rosie Napravnik, and she's riding Mylute, who is a 15-1 to win.
8. Women at the Derby
Did you know PEDs are a problem in horse racing, too? Well they are, and have been for a long time. However, only one Kentucky Derby champion has ever been tainted by a PED scandal, and that was Dancer's Image in 1968. After winning the race the horse tested positive for phenylbutazone, an illegal analgesic and anti-inflammatory drug. After a lengthy court battle, Dancer's Image was disqualified and the crown was awarded to the runner up, Forward Pass.
7. Horses on PEDs?
The fastest running of the Kentucky Derby? Yeah, you probably know this one, even if you don't realize it. It was the famous Secretariat, who won the Derby in 1973 with a record time of 1:59:24 seconds. That record has now stood for 40 years. And the craziest thing about it is that Secretariat actually got faster as the race went on, which almost never happens.
6. Fastest Ever
Of the 139 Kentucky Derby winners, only three have been fillies. The first was Regret in 1915, the second was Genuine Risk in 1980, and the third was Winning Colors (pictured here) in 1988. That's it.
Officially, the Kentucky Derby is a race for thoroughbreds up to the age of three. However, the reality is that this is a race for two-year-olds. The last horse to win the Kentucky Derby who was older that two years old? That would be Apollo...in 1882.
4. Dominated by Two-Year-Olds
The biggest underdog winner of the Kentucky Derby is a horse Disney has never made a movie about: Donerail. He was a 91-1 shot to win in 1913, but he won the race by half a length. That means anyone who placed a $2 bet got a $184.90 payout...which was a lot of money in 1913.
3. The Longest Longshot
The owner of the Kentucky Derby doesn't just get $1,425,000. They also get that nice blanket of roses.
The tradition of draping a blanket of roses dates back to 1883. A New York socialite named E. Berry Wall gave roses to all the ladies at a post-Derby party that year, and Derby founder Meriwether Lewis Clark decided to make the rose the official flower of the Kentucky Derby. By 1896, therefore, roses were being draped across the winning horses, and eventually the race itself started to be known as "The Run for the Roses."
Today the rose blanket contains precisely 564 roses. So, considering that a dozen roses goes for about $50, that, $2,350 worth of flowers adorning those horses' necks.
2. The Winners Circle
Horse Racing's Triple Crown developed organically. The Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont were the three highest-paying races in thoroughbred racing, so naturally owners just started sending their horses to Baltimore and upstate New York after the Derby in order to get a shot at the biggest paydays.
Interestingly, while both the Preakness and the Belmont were established before the Kentucky Derby—in 1873 and 1867, respectively—the Derby is the only one of the Triple Crown races to have been run every single year since it's inception. The Preakness took a hiatus from 1891-93, while the Belmont took a hiatus from 1911-12.
What does that mean? It means the Kentucky Derby is the longest-running continual sporting event in the United States.
Now you know.