The Kentucky Derby is an iconic horse race and the longest-running sporting event in the United States. Each May, thousands of people flock to Louisville to witness “the most exciting two minutes in sports.” On Derby Day, attendees don their finest attire, sip on mint juleps and wage bets in eager anticipation of the victor.

The Kentucky Derby’s history stems back to 1872 when Meriwether Lewis Clark, grandson of William Clark, took a trip to Europe [1]. There, he visited England’s Epsom Derby and met with the Parisian jockey club that hosted the Grand Prix de Paris Longchamps. Clark came home inspired to create an American horse-racing event of the same caliber.

Financed by his uncles John and Henry Churchill, Clark bought land and founded the Louisville Jockey Club to attract local race fans. After that, he started developing the racetrack that would soon become the stomping grounds of the Kentucky Derby.


Early view of Churchill Downs. Image Credit: Kentucky Derby Traditions - History of Churchill Downs
Early view of Churchill Downs. Image Credit: Kentucky Derby Traditions – History of Churchill Downs

The Kentucky Derby’s Historic Timeline

The Kentucky Derby has a fascinating and storied history. The most noteworthy events link all the way back to the late 1800s, spanning into the present day [2]:

  • 1875 – The very first Kentucky Derby race takes place on May 17th. It attracts 10,000 spectators. A chestnut horse named Aristides is the first winner, beating 14 other Thoroughbreds.
  • 1894 – As the event grows in popularity, a 285-foot grandstand is built to accommodate the growing crowd of spectators.
  • 1896 – The racetrack is shortened from 1.5 miles to 1.25 miles. This is still the length of the Kentucky Derby racetrack today.
  • 1904 – Red roses become the Kentucky Derby’s official flower.
  • 1919 – Sir Barton wins the Kentucky Derby and makes history as the first winner of the Triple Crown. The Triple Crown includes the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes [3].
  • 1925 – The Derby is broadcasted on the radio for the first time. Six million listeners tune in. Sports columnist Bill Corum coins the race “The Run for the Roses.”
  • 1931 – The Kentucky Derby sets the first Saturday in May as its official date going forward.
  • 1932 – The Kentucky Derby is held amid the Great Depression. It’s broadcasted internationally for the first time, attracting listeners all the way in England.
  • 1938 – A tunnel is built to connect the Kentucky Derby grandstand to the racetrack field, allowing attendees to watch the race with this superior view for an extra fee.
  • 1943 – Even in the face of World War II’s travel restrictions, the Kentucky Derby forges ahead. It draws a crowd of 65,000 local fans.
  • 1949 – The 75th Kentucky Derby is shown on local television for the first time.
  • 1952 – The Kentucky Derby enjoys its national television debut. An estimated 15 million viewers tune in to watch from across the country.
  • 1970 – Diane Crump becomes the first female jockey to race at the Kentucky Derby. She places 15th out of 18 participants.
  • 1973 – Secretariat wins the Kentucky Derby with the fastest time to date. He finishes the Kentucky Derby in 1:59:40. He goes on to become the Triple Crown champion.
  • 1984 – The Kentucky Derby is shown on television and broadcasted over the radio at other American racetracks, enabling faraway attendees to wager on the race in real time. This Derby Day sets a new wagering record of $18,941,933.
  • 1986 – Churchill Downs racetrack is registered as a National Historic Landmark.
  • 1992 –  Lil E. Tee becomes the first Pennsylvania-bred champion of the Kentucky Derby in a startling upset, beating out superstar and 9-10 favorite Arazi [4].
  • 2004 – Pennsylvania-bred champion Thoroughbred, Smarty Jones, wins the Kentucky Derby and is featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine.
  • 2006 – Beloved racehorse, Barbaro, wins the Kentucky Derby. Sadly, he shatters his legs during the subsequent Preakness Stakes and passes away shortly after that. A bronze statue of Barbaro is erected at Churchill Downs to honor his memory.
  • 2012 – The Kentucky Derby sets a new wagering record of $133,100,000.


As fans of the infamous race know, there were many more twists and turns that could have made it into this history book—but this provides a sense of the impeccable run the Kentucky Derby has had since 1875.


Barbaro’s Statue at Churchill Downs. Image Credit: Joe Hendrickson -
Barbaro’s Statue at Churchill Downs. Image Credit: Joe Hendrickson –


The Kentucky Derby Today

While the Kentucky Derby has grown and evolved over the years, it still carries on cherished traditions. For example, attendees always sing “My Old Kentucky Home” at the start of each race each year and winners are still draped in blankets of red roses.

This year, the 149th Kentucky Derby kicks off on May 6th. Excitingly, Angel of Empire—a Pennsylvania-bred horse—will be participating to follow in Lil E. Tee and Smarty Jones’s hoove steps. Tune in on May 6th to find out if this PA star will take home the rose garland.

If you want to learn more about this event, keep up with the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Association’s (PHRA) News and Stories sections and follow our social media accounts. We share updates on all of Pennsylvania’s must-know horse-racing news.

And if you want to make sure you’re ready to wager come Derby Day, be sure to tune into our Talk Derby to Us webinar on May 3 where we’ll guide you through everything you need to know.


Blog Header Image Credit: REUTERS



  1. Editors, “Kentucky Derby,”
  2. “Kentucky Derby History,” 2023 Kentucky Derby & Oaks.
  3. M. Drager, “Triple crown,” Encyclopædia Britannica.
  4. J. Kelly, “BackTracks: Lil E. Tee, PA’s first Derby winner,”


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