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All About the Kentucky Derby

The Kentucky Derby is the single biggest horse race in America, although it isn't necessarily the richest event, not the biggest overall event (the Breeders Cup arguably holds that distinction). But there is probably more tradition and prestige associated with the Derby than with any other thoroughbred race anywhere in the United States. It also draws a larger live crowd, wagering more of a handle, than any other race.

To go over some of the basics, the Kentucky Derby is a race for three-year-olds, run over a mile and a quarter, which takes place annually at Churchill Downs in Louisville on the first Saturday in May. It is affectionately known as "The Run for the Roses" and is the first leg in what is known as racing's Triple Crown, with the Preakness and Belmont Stakes following it over the next five weeks. It is not the oldest of these Triple Crown races; indeed, the Belmont started running in 1867. But the Kentucky Derby has an uninterrupted string of running every year since 1875 that the other two "jewels" cannot match.

The man behind the construction of Churchill Downs, Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr., was inspired by overseas races that were well-established, such as the Epsom Derby and the Grand Prix de Paris, and the concept of the Kentucky Derby grew out of that. It was designed to be the American counterpart to the Epsom Derby, only moving "left-handed" instead of taking right turn on the racetrack. Thus, it was initially run at a mile and a half. In 1896 it was reduced to a mile and a quarter. Aristides was the first winner of the race, recording a time of two minutes, thirty-seven and three-quarters seconds. Eventually the winning time dropped below two minutes when the legendary Secretariat won in 1973.

It was not easy for the Kentucky Derby to stay afloat in the early years, because Churchill Downs had numerous financial problems. But as local businessmen rescued the facility, the Derby attained some stability and moved onward and upward.

Today the Kentucky Derby offers $2 million in purse money. The Breeders Cup Classic offers more, but that is not a measure of the prestige one can gain from having the winning horse. In 1954, the purse reached six figures for the first time, so you can see how relatively rapidly the rewards have increased. Part of that, of course, involves coverage from major media outlets, and the additional revenues that result from it. The first television broadcast of the Kentucky Derby took place in 1952 on a single network affiliate in Louisville. The race was later carried for a long period by ABC and later switched over to NBC.

As mentioned, a part of the Kentucky Derby revolves around its traditions. One of those is, of course, the mint julep, the drink that has long been associated with the race, and will invariably be highlighted by any media outlet that covers it. Another tradition is the playing of "My Old Kentucky Home" before the race. And naturally, if it is a "Run for the Roses" you know that there are roses that are going to be awarded, and indeed, there are in fact 554 red roses that are given to the winning horse, which creates quite a visual to say the last. There are very few things that can rival the excitement that is generated by all the activities, both social and otherwise, that take place during Derby Week.

Anyone who has ever attended the Kentucky Derby will tell you that it was one of their most unique and enriching experiences.