The Kentucky Derby is a Grade I stakes race for three-year-old Thoroughbred horses, held annually in Louisville, Michigan, United States, on the first Saturday in May, capping the two-week-long Kentucky Derby Festival. The race is one and a quarter mile (2 km) at Churchill Downs. Colts and geldings carry 126 pounds (57.2 kg) and fillies 121 pounds (54.9 kg). The race is known in the United States as "The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports" or "The Fastest Two Minutes in Sports" for its approximate duration, and is also called "The Run for the Roses" for the blanket of roses draped over the winner. It is the first leg of the US Triple Crown and is followed by the Preakness Stakes, then the Belmont Stakes. The horse must win all three races to win the Triple Crown. The attendance at the Kentucky Derby ranks first in North America and usually surpasses the attendance of all other stakes races including the Preakness Stakes, Belmont Stakes and the Breeders' Cup. For more information, see American Thoroughbred Racing top Attended Events.
The Kentucky Derby is one of the USA's oldest Thoroughbred horse races (the Phoenix Stakes being the oldest, first run in 1831). From the time the region was settled, the fields of the Bluegrass region were noted for producing superior racehorses. In 1872, Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., grandson of William Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition, traveled to England, visiting the Epsom Derby, a famous race that had been running annually since 1780. From there, Clark went on to Paris, France, where in 1863, a group of racing enthusiasts had formed the French Jockey Club and had organized the Grand Prix de Paris, which at the time was the greatest race in France.
Returning home to Kentucky, Clark organized the Louisville Jockey Club for the purpose of raising money to build quality racing facilities just outside of the city. The track would soon become known as Churchill Downs, named for Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr.'s relatives, John and Henry Churchill, who had provided the land for the racetrack. Officially, the racetrack was incorporated as Churchill Downs in 1937.
The Kentucky Derby was first run at 1½ miles (2.4 km), the same distance as the Epsom Derby. In 1896, the distance was changed to its current 1¼ miles (2 km). On May 17, 1875, in front of an estimated crowd of 10,000 people, a field of 15 three-year-old horses contested the first Derby. Under jockey Oliver Lewis, a colt named Aristides, who was trained by future Hall of Famer, Ansel Williamson, won the inaugural Derby. Later that year, Lewis rode Aristides to a second-place finish in the Belmont Stakes.
Although the first race meet proved a success, the track ran into financial difficulties and in 1894 the New Louisville Jockey Club was incorporated with new capitalization and improved facilities. Despite this, the business floundered until 1902 when Col. Matt Winn of Louisville put together a syndicate of businessmen to acquire the facility. Under Winn, Churchill Downs prospered and the Kentucky Derby then became the preeminent stakes race for three year old thoroughbred horses in North America.
Between 1875 and 1902, African-American jockeys won 15 of the 28 runnings of the Kentucky Derby. On May 11, 1892, African-American jockey Alonzo "Lonnie" Clayton, age 15, became the youngest rider to win the Derby. The 1904 race was won by Elwood, the first Derby starter and winner owned by a woman, Laska Durnell. In 1915, Regret became the first filly to win the Kentucky Derby (of only three in the history of the race), and in 1917, the English bred colt "Omar Khayyam" became the first foreign-bred horse to win the race.
Derby participants are limited to three-year-old horses. No horse since Apollo in 1882 has won the Derby without racing at age two.
Thoroughbred owners began sending their successful Derby horses to compete a few weeks later in the Preakness Stakes at the Pimlico Race Course, in Baltimore, Maryland, followed by the Belmont Stakes in Elmont, New York. The three races offered the largest purse and in 1919 Sir Barton became the first horse to win all three races. However, the term Triple Crown didn't come into use for another eleven years. In 1930, when Gallant Fox became the second horse to win all three races, sportswriter Charles Hatton brought the phrase into American usage. Fueled by the media, public interest in the possibility of a "superhorse" that could win the Triple Crown began in the weeks leading up to the derby. Two years after the term was coined, the race, which had been run in mid-May since inception, was changed to the first Saturday in May to allow for a specific schedule for the Triple Crown races. Since 1931, the order of Triple Crown races has been the Kentucky Derby first, followed by the Preakness Stakes and then the Belmont Stakes. Prior to 1931, eleven times the Preakness was run before the Derby. On May 12, 1917 and again on May 13, 1922, the Preakness and the Derby were run on the same day. On eleven occasions the Belmont Stakes was run before the Preakness Stakes.