Impress friends, annoy strangers and win side bets with these obscure facts and lore about the world’s greatest race.
We all know that the Kentucky Derby is awesome. On the first Saturday in May, a bright light shines on our state and Kentuckians near and far beam with pride at a tradition no one else can claim. I mean, what Kentuckian doesn’t get all misty-eyed when the first strains of “My Old Kentucky Home” come over the loudspeakers?
Kentuckians are also often called upon to be the de facto ambassadors for our state around this time of year, especially when in a mixed crowd, so it helps to know a thing or two about the race.
After several years spent living outside the Commonwealth, my wife and I recently made a pilgrimage to the Kentucky Derby Museum at Churchill Downs to introduce our two young sons to the Derby and to reacquaint ourselves with its magic.
Not to mention, the museum’s behind-the-scenes tours are the best way to enjoy an uncrowded afternoon at the Downs and gain A-list access without paying an arm and a leg.
With help from curator of collections Chris Goodlett, here are a few choice facts and stories that might help you appreciate the world’s greatest horse race just a little more.
Derby History and Churchill Downs
- An estimated 10,000 people attended the first running of the Kentucky Derby, won by Aristides, on May 17, 1875. A reported 170,513 people — an all-time record — attended the 141st running in 2015 when American Pharoah won the first leg of what would be a successful Triple Crown bid. The race has never missed a year.
- Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., grandson of Gen. William Clark (of Lewis and Clark fame), founded the Louisville Jockey Club in 1874. The first Derby was also the first day of racing at the track.
- The track’s name was officially changed to Churchill Downs in 1937, although media and locals referred to it as such nearly from the get-go. John Henry Churchill, one of Clark Jr.’s uncles, owned the property. Downs is a term often used to describe a racetrack.
- The Epsom Derby, run at Epsom Downs in England, was the inspiration for the Kentucky Derby. A derby is essentially a race exclusively for 3-year-olds.
- Colonel Martin J. “Matt” Winn witnessed the first Kentucky Derby as a child. He later held executive positions at Churchill Downs from 1902 to 1949, and is credited with creating many of the features and innovations that have made the race what it is today. Winn lived at Churchill Downs, in a private apartment under the spires, toward the end of his life.
- The first souvenir mint julep glass debuted at Churchill Downs during the 1939 Derby. Officials at the 1938 Derby noticed people swiping water glasses from the clubhouse area, so they sold an official souvenir glass the next year.
Horses and Riders
- Of the 141 Derby-winning horses, 107 of them were born in Kentucky.
- There are 35 qualifying races in which 3-year-old horses can acquire points, and the point values increase closer to Derby. Horses with the most accumulated points are eligible to run in the Derby, with a maximum of 20 horses in the Derby field.
- Derby horses run carrying a weight of 126 pounds for colts. Fillies get a five-pound break and run at 121 pounds. Three fillies have won the Kentucky Derby, most recently Winning Colors in 1988.
Of the 141 Derby-winning horses, 107 of them were born in Kentucky.
- Before the advent of post-race weigh-ins, a popular story holds that it was a common practice for jockeys to ditch some of the lead weights from their saddle on the far turn. Hence the phrase “get the lead out.”
- Two jockeys are tied as the youngest to win the Kentucky Derby at 15 years old — Alonzo Clayton aboard Azra in 1892 and James “Soup” Perkins aboard Halma in 1895. Willie Shoemaker is the oldest winning jockey. His fourth Derby win came in 1986 aboard Ferdinand at age 54.
- African-American jockeys won 15 of the first 28 runnings of the Kentucky Derby.
- Six female jockeys have raced in the Kentucky Derby, a few on multiple occasions. None have won — yet.
- Jockey Pat Day holds the record for most wins at Churchill Downs, with 2,482 of his 8,803 career wins coming at the track. 156 of those wins were stakes races, such as the Kentucky Derby.
- Pat Day’s official height is 4’ 11”, although he often claimed to be 5’ tall. His statue in the paddock at Churchill Downs is exactly 5’ tall.
People and Personalities
- In 1942, during World War II, Sherman tanks fresh off of the assembly line were tested at what became known as “Camp Winn” at Churchill Downs. Soldiers from Fort Knox and Bowman Field camped in the infield during the exercises.
- George Clooney was born in Lexington, Kentucky on Derby Day, May 6, 1961.
- The 100th running of the Kentucky Derby, won by Cannonade, took place in 1974. That’s also the year some guy climbed a flagpole and took off all his clothes. Princess Margaret of Great Britain was in attendance that year, but offered no comment.
- Sneaking liquor into Churchill Downs is a sport in its own right — although one made much tougher by strict security protocols in recent years. Still, many longtime Derby goers recall stories of how some women would miraculously swell from a size “B” to “DD” on Derby Day, or of stashing bottles inside loaves of bread — even pony kegs stowed inside wheelchairs. Some forward-thinking individuals have been known to bury caches of booze in the infield during the annual Concours d’Elegance car show, only to dig it up several months later on Derby Day.
Visit the Kentucky Derby Museum at 704 Central Ave. in Louisville. Call 502-637-1111 or visit DerbyMuseum.org for information. Show your spirit with stylish Run for the Bourbon socks and other gear in the shop.