Kentucky Derby History

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Kentucky Derby History

The long and rich history of the Kentucky Derby, the longest continually running sporting event in the USA.

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Last updated: May 4, 2024 at 8:02 p.m. EDT

Learn about how the First Saturday in May came to be...

First run on May 17, 1875 at Churchill Downs in Louisville, the Kentucky Derby is an American sporting institution. Traditionally held on the first Saturday in May, the Derby is the longest continuously-run horse race in the United States. It also attracts the highest attendance, television ratings, and wagering of any race in the country.

Patterned after the Derby Stakes in England, the Kentucky Derby is for three-year-old Thoroughbreds and was initially contested over 1 1/2 miles. It was shortened to its present-day distance of 1 1/4 miles in 1896.

Under the leadership and marketing skills of Churchill Downs president Col. Matt Winn, the Kentucky Derby evolved into the nation’s preeminent Thoroughbred race in the early decades of the 20th century. It is also the first leg in the Triple Crown, which also includes the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. The series has been won 13 times since 1919.

A horse that wins the Kentucky Derby traditionally becomes a household name, and many of the sport’s most noted champions have been adorned with the blanket of roses in the winner’s circle.

Triple Crown winners American Pharoah, Justify, Secretariat, Citation, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Count Fleet, and War Admiral are perhaps the most remembered of all Kentucky Derby winners, but the race has also been won by such Hall of Fame greats as Swaps, Spectacular Bid, and Northern Dancer, who is considered by many to be one of the greatest stallions in the history of the breed.

The Derby has been won three times by fillies: Regret (1915), Genuine Risk (1980), and Winning Colors (1988).

According to Churchill Downs records, pari-mutuel wagering was first offered on the Kentucky Derby in 1908.

The longest-priced winner in Derby history came in 1913 when Donerail paid $184.90. The second- and third-highest payouts have both occurred in the last 5 years: Rich Strike payed out $163.90 in 2022 and Country House paid out $132.40 in 2019.

Fusaichi Pegasus (2000) ended a 21-year drought in which no post-time favorite captured the Kentucky Derby. In the last 16 editions of the Derby, however, eight post-time favorites have won, including 2015 winner American Pharoah and 2018 winner Justify (both Triple Crown winners).

Kentucky Derby Historical Features

Read more features on the Kentucky Derby and races that have defined the Road to the First Saturday in May.

HANSON: Phenom to Journeyman: The Riding Life of Bill Boland
REILLY: Lecomte: The short life but long legacy of a Louisiana racing hero
HANSON: Pensive: The near Triple Crown winner that flopped out of a year-end title
HANSON: Bold Venture a Kentucky Derby winner that consistently beat the odds
SCHIVELY: Afleet Alex, against all odds
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