The Kentucky Derby: “Run for the Roses”

 

Churchill Downs, c. 1966-1968, taken by a photographer for the Kentucky Department of Public Information.

Churchill Downs, c. 1966-1968, taken by a photographer for the Kentucky Department of Public Information.

As many of you may know this Saturday, May 4, 2013 marks the 139th “Run for the Roses” also known as the Kentucky Derby! Having only lived in the Commonwealth for 1 ½ years, I have become extremely fascinated by Kentucky cultural traditions and have spent many of my weekends exploring the states rich cultural history. The Kentucky Derby being one event that has been part of Kentucky culture since 1875, I wanted to learn more. After finally finding the perfect dress to match my amazing hat, I decide that a better way to learn more about the Kentucky Derby was to explore the collections here at The Filson Historical Society. Many people think of horses, hats, seersucker & bow ties, mint juleps, jockey silks, Triple Crown, blanket of roses, and Millionaires row when they think of the Kentucky Derby. I wanted to delve a little bit deeper and learn about how the Kentucky Derby came to be here in Louisville, 138 years ago.

Clark, Meriwether Lewis, Jr. PC3.0153

Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr. (1846-1899)

After looking through a handful of books from our Library Collection and hunting down images and manuscripts from our Special Collections Department this is what I discovered…The story begins with Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr. (1846-1899) also known as Lutie,(1) who was a grandson of the famous explorer William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. While horse racing had taken place in Louisville, as early as 1783 on a downtown street, it was never a successful enterprise. In 1872 a group of breeders asked Clark, a Louisville socialite, if he could assist with resurrecting the sport in Louisville (2). Clark with no racing experience decided instead of taking hasty action, he would go to Europe to do some research. That same summer of 1872, Clark along with his wife Mary headed to Europe to learn more on the racing practices in England and France (3). While in Europe, Clark not only met the leading gentlemen of the English Jockey Club, but he also had the opportunity to go to the 1873 Derby at Epson Downs in London along with his wife Mary, and her Uncle John Churchill. It was while in England Clark was asked by a leading horseman, “why do you not start a jockey club at the metropolis of your state and have representative races? If your people appreciate them, others will do so. Give class races, and by your stacks compel the large establishments to breed them.”(4)  After two years of in-depth research Clark finally re-approached the breeders and told them of his plan to establish a new racetrack here in Louisville. Clark had a vision; he outlined the details of a permanent series of races modeled after the English classics and he envisioned a race called the Kentucky Derby. “At the very outset, Clark forecast greatness for the Kentucky derby, predicting that in a decade the winner of the race would be worth more or sell for more than the farm on which he was bred and raised.”(5)

Official Program for the Louisville Jockey Club, 27 September 1876. (Mss A B 527-Bernhardt, Carl Scrapbook)

Official Program for the Louisville Jockey Club, 27 September 1876. (Mss A B 527-Bernhardt, Carl Scrapbook)

 

By 1874, Clark had formally created the Louisville Jockey Club and Driving Park Association. An article in The Courier-Journal, 27 May 1874, titled: An Excellent Enterprise. Proposed Organization of a Jockey Club and Running Park near Louisville states, “Several gentlemen of this city have inaugurated a project, which has every promise of a successful fruition to establish near Louisville a running course, a similar to that of the Jockey Club in New York and the Metairie Club in New Orleans…They will embrace sixty-five acres of the old Churchill property, which admirably adapted in every respect to the purpose designed.”

"An Excellent Enterprise.  Proposed Organization of a Jockey Club and Running Park near Louisville"  The Courier-Journal, 27 May 1874.

"An Excellent Enterprise. Proposed Organization of a Jockey Club and Running Park near Louisville" The Courier-Journal, 27 May 1874.

 

The Churchill property referred to is that of Mary Clark’s Uncle John Churchill. After years of planning, Clark being the president of the Louisville Jockey Club scheduled the Kentucky Derby as the track’s opening event on Monday, May 17, 1875 with the Oaks being run on Wednesday.

On Monday, May 17, 1875, Clark decided to rally the crowds for the Derby and opened the infield to the public free of charge, according to one source (6). The last nail was hammered into the new grandstand moments before the gate opened and the first racing fans entered (7). The Derby had been the talk- of-the-town for weeks and people from all over the city were headed to the races. The Derby was turning into the social event of the season with over 10,000 people showing-up to watch the mile-and-a-half race for three-year-old horses. For those who knew racing, the prediction was that Chesapeake, a fast colt owned  by Kentucky squire H. Price McGrath, would win it (8).

Aristides, the winner of the first Kentucky Derby in 1875.

Aristides, the winner of the first Kentucky Derby in 1875.

Many folks didn’t even know that Chesapeake’s stable mate, Aristides would also be running in the race that day. The race was a close one, African-American jockey Oliver Lewis and Aristides pulled through and won the race setting a new American record for the one-and-one-half-mile distance. The purse being less than $3,000 according to several sources.

While many features about the Kentucky Derby have changed over time, there is still that amazing sensation of dressing-up and cheering on your favorite Thoroughbred to the end. While this is not an all encompassing history of the 138 years of the Kentucky Derby, I hope it gives you a small glimpse into the amazing history we have here in Louisville.  I hope all of you enjoy watching the most exciting two minutes in sports this Saturday!

 

 

Washing a Thoroughbred at Churchill Downs, c. 1950-1960. Image taken and donated by Philip Bettag of Louisville, KY.

Footnotes:

(1)  Samuel W. Thomas, Churchill Downs: A Documentary of America’s Most Legendary Race Track

(Louisville,  Kentucky: Kentucky Derby Museum, 1995), 31.

(2)  Jim Bolus, Kentucky Derby Stories (Gretna, La: Pelican Pub. Co, 1993) 48-49.

(3)  Jim Bolus, Kentucky Derby Stories (Gretna, La: Pelican Pub. Co, 1993) 48.

(4)  Samuel W. Thomas, Churchill Downs: A Documentary of America’s Most Legendary Race Track

(Louisville, Kentucky: Kentucky Derby Museum, 1995), 34.

(5)  Jim Bolus, Kentucky Derby Stories (Gretna, La: Pelican Pub. Co, 1993) 49.

(6)  John E. Kleber The Encyclopedia of Louisville (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001) 469.

(7)  Jim Bolus, Run for the Roses: 100 Years at the Kentucky Derby 

(New York: Hawthorn Books, 1974) 7.

(8)  Jim Bolus, Run for the Roses: 100 Years at the Kentucky Derby

(New York: Hawthorn Books, 1974) 7.

 

Churchill Downs, undated.

Churchill Downs, undated.

Heather Potter

Heather Potter is the Curator of Photographs and Prints at The Filson Historical Society.

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