The Commonwealth of Kentucky is known for many things, according to David Contarino. Visitors come for the caves and Corvettes. Others imagine bluegrass and bourbon. But more often than any of these, Kentucky is celebrated for horse racing – specifically the Kentucky Derby.
Long time Kentucky resident David Contarino explains that horse racing is a long-held tradition that originally made its way to the United States back in 1875. Three years prior, Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. had the honor of attending the Epsom Derby in England and was captivated. He returned to the US with what David Contarino describes as “unbridled enthusiasm.” Clark partnered with his uncles Henry and John Churchill, who later donated the land needed to form the racetrack that would become known as Churchill Downs. According to David Contarino, the racetrack became the home base for the Louisville Jockey Club.
In May 1875, the Louisville Jockey Club hosted the inaugural Kentucky Derby, which featured about a dozen thoroughbreds. David Contarino says the first Kentucky Derby drew more than 10,000 spectators and was won by Aristides.
Like all major sporting events, David Contarino says the Kentucky Derby has changed over the last 144 years. The most notable change is shortening the race length from one and a half miles to one and one-quarter miles. Traditions, such as the famed garland of roses, have also sprung up thanks to this equestrian past time. David Contarino explains the mint julep and fancy dress hats have also become a staple of Kentucky culture each May, when the Kentucky Derby is held.
While the Kentucky Derby is known as the Race for the Roses, it’s not just the horses and jockeys that garner attention on race day. David Contarino points out that hat-wearing, especially by women, has become expected at the Derby. Large, elaborate hats could be seen starting with the first race, as the Derby was styled after similar European events. Hats are not mandatory but David Contarino says that they have become a symbol of good luck and women of all ages vie to get their hat noticed.
Kentucky Derby timeline
1874 – Meriwether Lewis Clark is gifted land and forms the Louisville Jockey Club.
1883 – The moniker “Churchill Downs” is bestowed upon the eight-year-old track. David Contarino notes Leonatus wins this race.
1894 – Grandstand is constructed to accommodate rapidly growing crowds.
1896 – Length of race shortened by a quarter mile. David Contarino explains that the longer race was considered too long for young horses so early in the year.
1899 – Kentucky Derby/Churchill Downs founder Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. commits suicide after six years of suffering financial losses due to the 1893 stock market crash.
1903 – Churchill Downs celebrates first ever profit from race day.
1911 – Churchill Downs lowers minimum bet to $2 to ensure working-class citizens have an opportunity to participate.
1914 – Record race time of 2:03:04 achieved by Old Rosebud.
1915 – Regret, the Derby’s first filly, wins the Kentucky Derby and officially cements horse racing into American history.
1924 – 50th anniversary of the Kentucky Derby; Black Gold wins and receives now iconic cup and candlesticks.
1925 – As radio becomes more popular, Kentucky Derby is broadcast over the air to a listenership of six million people. David Contarino says that 1925 also marks the first time the phrase “Run for the Roses” is uttered by sports columnist Bill Corum.
1931 – Churchill Downs officially schedules first Saturday in May each year as Kentucky Derby run date, which David Contarino explains was to allow for a consistent race schedule for those participating in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes.
1938 – Kentucky Derby infield constructed and opened to the public with a $.50 admission.
1949 — Kentucky Derby is broadcast on television for the first time in celebration of its 75th anniversary.
1952 – The fourth year of televised broadcast shatters expectations with 15 million viewers; Hill Gale wins Derby.
1966 – Millionaire’s Row is unveiled.
1968 – Scandal hits Kentucky Derby with Dancer’s Image disqualified after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs. According to David Contarino, the winner’s purse is then awarded to Forward Pass, the original runner up.
1973 – Secretariat runs through previous record to win Derby in 1:59:40. Churchill Downs celebrates 99th consecutive Kentucky Derby.
1984 – Technology allows Kentucky Derby to be simulcast at two-dozen racetracks and wagering sets record at $18,941,993 for single race.
1986 – Churchill Downs officially added to the register of National Historic Landmarks.
1999 – Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby celebrate 125 years and future wagers are permitted for the first time.
2006 – Barbaro, a fan favorite, wins Derby by the largest margin in 60 years and later succumbs to injuries incurred during the Preakness Stakes. David Contarino explains that Barbaro’s remains are interred at Churchill Downs and are commemorated with a bronze statue at the entrance of the racetrack.
2015 – American Pharoah takes the roses and later wins Triple Crown.
The Kentucky Derby is truly the Kentucky thing to do, says David Contarino, who attends regularly. He explains that the best tickets often sell out one year in advance and insists that the derby’s “Greatest Two Minutes In Sports” is the most exciting 120 seconds of the year.