During the first weekend in May my friends and I headed to the race tracks to watch the Derby. While I was sipping on my second mint julep and admiring the colorful hats I began to wonder about the history of the Derby. After coming home from the horse races I looked more into how the Kentucky Derby came about. Now, to make it clear I did not attend the actual Kentucky Derby, instead I went to the Arlington Racetracks just north of Chicago to watch the horse races. Every racecourse around the United States has their own Derby day with several races. Before the final race at the local courses the crowd watches the final race held at the Kentucky Derby on the TV screens. Beats are placed, and those who win big go home with some extra earnings. I ended up winning $10 =o)
The Kentucky Derby is the longest running sporting event in the United States, dating back to 1875. The race is also known as The Run for the Roses and is considered to be the most exciting two minutes in sports, completely uninterrupted. The Derby has been held every year since, even during the Great Depression and both World Wars.
Three years before the first Derby race was held, Meriwether Lewis Clark, the grandson of William Clark (yes, the Clark half of Lewis and Clark, the two explorers who travelled to the north western part of the United States with Sacagawea) travelled to England where he attended the Epsom Derby. This well-known horse race has been going on since 1780. Meriwether also visited with the French Jockey Club, a group who started the Grand Prix de Paris Longchamps race in France. Returning back to the US, Meriwether was inspired to start a similar race to the two he witnessed during his European travels.
Meriwether was gifted the necessary land to build the racetrack on by his two uncle’s John and Henry Churchill in 1874. The race track which was later named Churchill Downs racetrack in honor of his uncles. Once he had the land he began to formally organize a group of local race fans who became the Louisville Jockey Club. The new club helped raise the funds to build a permanent racetrack. On May 17th 1875, the racetrack opened its gates and the Louisville Jockey Club was able to host their first Kentucky Derby. There were fifteen three year old Thoroughbred horses who raced around the track for a mile and a half in front of a crowd of 10,000 onlookers.
It wasn’t until almost a hundred years later in 1970 that the first female jockey rode in the Kentucky Derby. Diane Crump finished 15th out of the 18 horses racing and although it wasn’t a win, she did open the door for future female jockeys. As of then no female trainer or jockey has won the Run for the Roses, but there is a chance in the near future =o)
Since the first race in 1875, the Kentucky Derby has experienced several changes but has stayed true to honoring the integrity of the race that Meriwether had imagined. From shortening its distance of the race, to the tradition of draping the winning horse in a garland of roses, and to the growing size of crowds. My first time to the Derby was last year and there is something special about the atmosphere in the crowd as everyone is gripping their beating ticket and holding their breaths as the horses run past.
All this research still didn’t answer the most important question I had: why do women wear such outrageous hats? What I found out was that when the first Kentucky Derby was held at the Churchill Downs racetrack, hats were very fashionable. Because the race was a social event, the ladies attending wanted to wear fancy and extravagant hats to show their social status and expensive style. This tradition has continued to be carried on by the many women who attend the races each year. For those of you wondering where I got my fancy headpiece, I bought it on Amazon.
So there you have it, a quick history of the Derby and a why the elegant ladies watching the race wear such hats. I recommend finding a racetrack near you and attending the races next year because it makes for a great day out with friends =o)
x the Adventurer