Kentucky Derby - a Brief History

22 May 2012

The Kentucky Derby ran last weekend in Louisville, Kentucky - this is the Melbourne Cup equivalent. The Kentucky horse racing tradition dates as far back as 1783, marking the beginning of a long racing tradition with a rich and storied past. From "The Commons" to "Shippingport", today’s permanent location for The Kentucky Derby is at Churchill Downs; established in 1883.

Here's a brief Kentucky racing timeline.

 The Kentucky Derby

1787 – 'The Commons' a park like city street block was used for racing

1789 – A group of 'safety minded' citizens created a formal location for race meets

1805 – Racing moved to Shippingport Island and away from the city streets permanently

1827 – a new track known as Hope Distllery Course was created at a local farm

1833 – The Oakland Race Course was opened with the first formal racetrack and clubhouse

1858 – Moved to Woodland Course, east of downtown Louisville, also the birth place of the Woodland Vase, a wooden trophy presented to the winner

By 1873, Col M. Lewis Clark was developing a racetrack to show case Kentucky breeding. The track was known as ‘Churchill Downs’, named by the Louisville Commercial Newspaper and officially opened in May 1875.

Churchill Downs was not an immediate success. It was 28 years later in 1903 and under new administration before the track showed its first true profit. The track grew in popularity over the next decade with several clubs and associations being developed. While many tracks remain in the area, Churchill Downs remains as the premier track of Kentucky.

Enter the TV Revolution

The first live telecast of the Kentucky Derby aired on May 3, 1952. The popularity of the Derby in the following years exploded bringing in untold millions in revenue from wagering and tourism, thus financing further clubhouse and grandstand expansion and improvements to the track.  It was not long before the Kentucky Derby was the premier race of America and soon became known as 'America’s Race’.

Today the Derby is an annual event that attracts over a 150,000 visitors from all over the world producing more than $100 million in wagers. The spectators themselves create a fashionable extravaganza creating something like a milliner’s dreamscape with hats of all designs dotting the field. Entertainment runs over several days and the sheer thrill of the big race is one that any racing fan should not miss.

Quick Facts

Location:  Louisville, Kentucky. Approximately 300 miles or 5 hours drive south-east of Chicago. From Nashville it’s approximately a 3 hour drive or 175 miles north-east.

When:  Beginning of May each year

Book: Now! Everything from tickets to flights to accommodation book out early.

This post first appeared on the blog morethanroute66.com.

Jason Dutton-Smith

I’m a passionate traveller and a first class nomad wannabe. I have a love for the written word and enjoy sharing stories that inspire travel. I like ordinary but love extraordinary. I’ll dance and sing karaoke to anything 80’s, will drink hot tea even if 40 degrees, love food and have a wicked sweet tooth. Architecture excites me, the window seat thrills me and anything aviation enamours me. I’m a perpetual dreamer who lives by Saint Augustine’s wise words – “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page”. My intention is to read War and Peace!