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Kentucky Derby 101

How it all began

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Churchill Downs Twin Spires

The Twin Spires at Churchill Downs on Derby Day.

Cindy Pierson Dulay
The Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs is probably the most recognizable horse race in the world and the prize that all horse owners dream of winning. This year is the 135th renewal of the $2 million mile and a quarter event for three-year-old thoroughbreds and as usual Derby Fever is building in fans, bettors, and horsemen alike.

The Kentucky Derby was first run in 1875, the year Churchill Downs was opened by Col. M. Lewis Clark. He set up three major stakes races for the new track to emulate the three premier races in England: the Epsom Derby, Epson Oaks, and St. Leger Stakes. Thus were created the Kentucky Derby, Kentucky Oaks, and Clark Handicap, all of which are still run today. The first Derby winner was Aristides, a chestnut colt whose statue now stands in the garden behind the clubhouse. Despite the grand plans of Col. Clark, the Derby remained a local race without national importance for decades until new ownership headed by Col. Matt Winn took over the track in 1902. Winn was an excellent promoter and turned the track around to show its first profitable year in 1903, 28 years after it first opened. Winn was responsible for many expansions and improvements to the track and used publicity to build the Kentucky Derby into the major racing event it is today.

The Kentucky Derby today is a major media event with several hundred reporters, photographers, and television and radio crews descending on Churchill Downs for Derby week. Fans across the country follow the prospects for the race from January, when the first prep races are run, up until the event and millions tune in to watch on NBC television. Millions more place wagers on the race around the world with the first future bets usually starting up right after the Breeders’ Cup races the previous year. Everyone seems to want to have at least a $2 bet on the Derby whether it is at a simulcast outlet, OTB, race book, or online wagering service.

How it all began
Trying to pick a winner
Being there in person

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