The Kentucky Derby, the premier horse race of all horse
races, has a checkered history that spans 130 years. At first,
it struggled to survive, owing its success to the men and
women who created and sustained it.
The dream started with a young man, Col. M. Lewis Clark,
grandson of Gen. William Clark, the explorer. He visited England
and France in 1872 and decided that he would start a racetrack
in Kentucky to revive the state’s horse breeding industry.
Development began soon after the trip on 80 acres he obtained
from his two uncles, John and Henry Churchill. Funding was
through membership subscriptions that sold at $100 a piece.
The track was officially opened on May 17, 1875. Four races
were held that day and the winner of the featured race, the
Kentucky Derby, was a horse named Aristides. Two African Americans,
Oliver Lewis and Ansel Williamson, trained and jockeyed Aristides.
Throughout the years, the Kentucky Derby became the focal
event for Churchill Downs.
Eventually, the Kentucky State Fair held activities at Churchill
Downs, but the main attraction was then and still is today
betting on that special horse to win. In 1875, the prize for
winning was $2,850. The purse jumped to $5,460 in 1890 with
Riley leading the pack as the thoroughbreds crossed the finish
line. The winner of the Kentucky Derby in 1896 was Ben Brush
with the first-place prize money totaling $4,850. The winner’s
purse would remain at that figure for the next 17 years.
In 1913 there was a slight increase in prize money, but the
following year the winner’s proceeds skyrocketed to $9,125.
That same year Old Rosebud won by a hefty 8 lengths, setting
a track record of 2:03 for the 2/5-mile oval. By 1915, the
Derby had developed a reputation as a premier sporting event
due to a 3-year publicity push. The Golden Jubilee Derby in
1924 featured a purse of $52,775. Through the years, the prize
money continued to grow. In 1970, Secretariat became the first
Triple Crown winner in 25 years, with a Derby win timed at
1 minute, 59 seconds. The net for Secretariat’s owners was
a whopping $127,800. In May of 2004 the winner of the Derby
took home a record $5,854,800.
While Churchill Downs was the hub of betting, racing, and
other activities, it went through leadership changes quite
frequently. Col. M. Lewis Clark and his Louisville Jockey
Club started the annual show in 1875. Although the first Kentucky
Derby had been a success, there were financial problems. In
an attempt to provide a more secure financial situation, the
race was incorporated under the New Louisville Jockey Club
on November 24, 1894. William F. Schulte became president
and Col. M. Lewis Clark was appointed the presiding judge.
Tragedy struck with the suicide of Clark in Memphis, Tennessee,
on April 22, 1899. Financial problems plagued the track again
and former mayor, Charles Grainger, Charlie Price, and Matt
J. Winn took over on October 1, 1902. The first sign of profitability
was in 1903. The Kentucky Jockey Club took over all 4 racetracks
in Kentucky in 1918-1919. Churchill Downs-Latona became the
legal name of the track in 1937 after the sale of several
of the other racetracks. October 6,1949, marked the death
of Col. Matt J. Winn, the man credited with making the Kentucky
Derby the most prestigious race in the world. Bill Corum took
over the helm and modernized the track.
The Kentucky Derby was televised for the first time on May
3,1952. In December of 1958, Bill Corum died and was replaced
by Wathen Knebelkamp. Under new direction, Churchill Downs
underwent more renovation. Also, the City of Louisville tried
to purchase the racetrack, but the aldermen had the final
word and wouldn’t allow it. Around 1968 there was another
battle for ownership of Churchill Downs and this time the
Derby Protection Group became the highest bidder.
Lynn Stone was named the new president in 1970. He was successful
in fending off 2 more attempts to take over the racetrack.
But when financial problems arose, Stone resigned in August
1984, to be replaced by Thomas Meeker. Through the good leadership
of Meeker, Chairman Warner Jones, and the current Chairman
William Farish, Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby have
Besides the controversy related to takeovers and changes
in leadership, there were legal issues as well. In 1908, betting
began to be a problem to the point that the Louisville city
administration was cracking down on bookmakers. A loophole
made it possible to continue the parimutuel betting that Col.
Clark had imported in 1875 from France. Problems arose again
and there was a government ban on horseracing in 1945, but
VE Day changed everything and the Derby continued on June
9th of that year.
As was noted earlier, African Americans have played a key
role since the first race and have made major contributions
throughout the derby’s history. Alonzo Lonnie Clayton was
an early jockey who, at in 1892 the age of 15, rode Azra,
making him the youngest jockey to achieve victory. Erskin
Henderson was the 6th African American to win the Kentucky
Derby, riding Joe Cotton in 1885. Babe Hurd rode Appollo in
1882 and won. George Garrett Lewis, another African American,
jockeyed Fonso in the 1880 Derby. These are 4 of 15 African
Americans who won the Kentucky Derby and have their names
enshrined in the Kentucky Derby Museum.
In addition, women jockeys have been active in the Derby;
the five who have run for the roses are Patti Cooksey, Diane
Crump, Julie Krone, Andrea Seefeldt, and Rosemary Homeister.
Also, It has been fairly common throughout the years that
women have been owners.
The Kentucky Derby and Churchill Downs have become the hallmark
of first-class horseracing by dealing with adversity and making
adjustments. The Derby is a horserace unlike any other in
terms of prestige, excitement, and quality competitors. Those
who have played an important role in making the Derby a yearly
tradition include the jockeys, trainers, breeders, administrators,
owners, and those magnificent creatures, the horses that have
run for the roses for 130 years. The brainchild of Col. M.
Lewis Clark is much more than a horserace. It is an American
About The Author
This article was written by Rita R. Powers sponsored by http://www.stubhub.com.