The Kentucky Derby is not the fastest, longest, or most monetarily valuable horse race in America but it is the most popular and well-known. The race also puts the state of Kentucky in the spotlight each spring as thousands converge on Churchill Downs to wear giant flower-bedecked hats, drink mint juleps, and sing “My Old Kentucky Home.” A new book The Kentucky Derby: How The Run For The Roses Became America’s Premier Sporting Event by James C. Nicholson traces the history of the event as well as its role in American horse racing.
The first Kentucky Derby was run in 1875, a time when Kentucky was not the center of American horse racing, that was New York. The Derby wasn’t even the most important derby at the time; that honor went to the American Derby in Chicago. Later the race evolved to be more than a simple sporting event, attracting a far wider audience than anyone could have dreamed.
In addition to surviving two world wars, the Derby has faced many significant changes including the gradual removal of black jockeys from the sport. The first Kentucky Derby was won by a black jockey, Oliver Lewis, and half of the winners of the first sixteen Derbies were black. It was only when jockeys began to command more money and attention that the black jockeys were pushed out of the sport in favor of white men. Kentucky has struggled with its legacy as a state that is both Northern and Southern and the Derby has reflected that battle over the years.
The Derby is a sporting celebration partly because of the contrast between raucous atmosphere of the infield and the rows of the more sedate elite in luxury boxes who fly in from around the country to watch the race. It is an ever-evolving celebration, one that is becoming increasingly commercialized. Souvenir mint julep glasses became available in the 1930s as an attempt to curb the theft of water glasses from the track’s dining room. Now $1,000 commemorative julep cups are sold by Woodford Reserve each year.
Today’s race is a global event featuring horses from around the world but it is still the homegrown stories that always command media attention. The traditions started decades ago continue to have resonance in today’s world, partly because we still find something appealing in the old Southern customs.
The book contains many photos from the early days of the race including shots of some of the world’s most beautiful racehorses and some of the race’s legends such as the legendary Colonel Matt Winn, the presdent of Churchill Downs for many years. The future of racing remains uncertain, but it is likely the Derby will live on in all its grandeur and finery each May for many years to come.