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History of the Kentucky Derby

By: Alex Lieber

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It may be a stretch to say that the Kentucky Derby rescued organized racing from oblivion in the United States. But it isn't much of a stretch.

The year was 1908, and the Progressive movement was galloping across the country, preaching against the vices of drinking, smoking and gambling, just to name a few. State by state, the reformers managed to close down horse tracks by pointing out the widespread allegations of corruption – bookies manipulated the odds and jockeys threw races. Even the traditional racing powerhouses, the Saratoga and Belmont tracks, succumbed to the anti-racing sentiment. They closed down for several years.

The reformers were even gaining strength in Kentucky, which had a long history of horse racing. In Louisville, future home of the Kentucky Derby, local riders raced their horses down the main thoroughfare with alarming regularity. The first race was recorded in 1783. After many complaints from frightened residents, these early jockeys finally built their own racetrack in 1805.

In 1874, Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark, grandson of the famous explorer, founded the Louisville Jockey Club, and the track that would be known as the Churchill Downs was built on land secured from his relatives. A year later, the track opened.

In its early years, the derby struggled financially against the established eastern tracks, such as the Belmont and Saratoga. These areas had a head start in racing – the British established the New World's first racetrack in Long Island in 1665. Organized racing did not begin in the United States until after the Civil War, but it flourished quickly. By the turn of the century, more than 300 horse tracks were scattered throughout the country. Against such heady opposition, the Kentucky Derby was relegated as a regional event, and the Churchill Downs lurched in financial crisis year after year.

Then the Progressive movement began its assault. By 1908, all but 25 tracks had closed down. With fewer places to race, eastern jockeys had little choice but to compete in the Kentucky Derby, explains Chris Goodlet, curator of collections for the Kentucky Derby Museum. "Churchill Downs was one of the few places they could go, and it began to flourish."

But soon the reformers closed in on the Kentucky Derby. The state legislature, under pressure, was debating whether to shut the derby down. What saved the track, Goodlet says, was a bit of foresight when the track was founded.

Pari-mutuel machines, invented in France, had been installed at the Churchill Downs from the time the track was built. Bookies opposed the machines because they rightly feared that they would lose influence. With a pari-mutuel machine, the odds are set at the beginning of a race, but change as people wager. If fewer people bet on a horse, the odds against that horse winning go up. There is less chance of manipulation.

The legislature struck an agreement with the track: no bookies. The machines largely took their place, and the derby was saved. With this agreement and the tireless promotional efforts of Matt Winn, credited with turning the derby into a racing force to be reckoned with, the Kentucky Derby became the longest running sports event in the United States.

Through Prohibition, the Great Depression and two world wars, the track has never missed a race in its 126-year history. From 1875 to 1895, the course was 1½ miles. Ever since then, it has been 1¼ miles. The first winner was Aristides, that ran the course in 2 minutes and 37 seconds, earning $2,850. Last year, the horse Fusaichi Pegasus completed the course in 2 minutes, 1 second, winning a purse of more than $1 million.

Through the years, interest in horse racing has waxed and waned, but traditions of the Kentucky Derby, complete with mint juleps and derby parties, has always remained intact.

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