History is unclear if a trophy was presented in 1875 to the winner of the first Kentucky Derby and trophy presentations were sporadically made in following years. But in 1924, Churchill Downs President Matt Winn had a standard trophy design commissioned for the 50th "Golden Anniversary" running of the Kentucky Derby. Since then Churchill Downs has presented a 14-karat gold trophy to the winning owner of the Kentucky Derby.
Only one change has been made to the original design other than jewels that were added for special Kentucky Derby anniversaries in 1949 (75th), 1974 (100th), and 1999 (125th). Starting with the 125th Kentucky Derby in 1999, Churchill Downs officials decided to defer to racing superstition and change the direction of the horseshoe on the front of the trophy.
The horseshoe, fashioned from 18-karat gold, had pointed downward on each of the trophies since 1924. In 1999 the horseshoe was flipped so that its ends pointed up and has stayed that way since. Superstition states that if the horseshoe is turned down all the luck will run out, so it is surprising it was that way to begin with.
Since 1975 the trophy has been crafted by New England Sterling in Massachusetts. The trophy is an urn that is 22 inches tall and weighs 56 ounces, excluding the jade base. It is topped by an 18-karat gold horse and rider and has horseshoe shaped handles and a horseshoe on the front. The entire trophy is made by hand with the exception of the horse and rider that are both cast from a mold.
It takes hundreds of hours of work to complete the trophy, and craftsmen usually beging during the fall of the previous year so they can finish by April. The trophy is believed to be the only solid gold trophy that is annually awarded the winner of a major American sporting event.