Kentucky has always been known for producing superior racehorses, and the Kentucky Derby is one of the oldest thoroughbred horse races in the U.S. Thanks to the efforts of Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr. who organized the Louisville Jockey Club to raise money to build quality racing facilities outside the city, he helped establish the Churchill Downs. It was named after his relatives John and Henry Churchill who had provided the land for the racetrack that became incorporated in 1937.
The Derby's debut in front of a crowd of over 10,000 people, and fifteen three-year-old horses was held on May 17, 1875. In 1896, the distance of the race was changed from 1 ½ miles to 1 ¼ miles. A colt named Aristides was the first horse to win the inaugural Derby. Although the race proved a success, the track experienced financial difficulties. In 1902, Col. Matt Winn was able to bring together businessmen investors to acquire the facility and help the Churchill Downs prosper and make the Kentucky Derby the leading stakes race for three-year-old thoroughbred horses in North America.
The youngest jockey to win the Derby was an African-American rider named Alonzo "Lonnie" Clayton. He was only fifteen when he won on May 11, 1892. African-American jockeys won fifteen of the twenty-eight races of the Kentucky Derby between 1875 and 1902. Only three fillies have won in the history of the race. A filly named Regret was the first to win in 1915.
Successful Derby horses were soon sent by their owners to compete in the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore, Maryland and Belmont Stakes in Elmont, New York held a few weeks after the Kentucky Derby. In 1919, Sir Barton became the first horse to win all three races. These three races offered the largest purses but were not referred to as the Triple Crown until 1930.
The Kentucky Derby was first nationally televised on May 3, 1952. The purse during the 1954 race exceeded $100,000 for the first time. Secretariat ran the fastest time ever run in the Derby when he broke the record in 1973. The purse distribution changed in 2005 allowing horses finishing fifth to also receive a share of the purse, where previously only the first four finishers did.
As the Kentucky Derby's popularity grew, a number of traditions were also established. The Mint Julep, an iced drink made of bourbon, mint, and sugar syrup, became the Derby's traditional beverage. A popular Kentucky stew dish called Burgoo is also served at the Derby. Women dress up in fine outfits and wear large, stylish hats as they watch the horses parade before the grandstands to the song "My Old Kentucky Home" played by the University of Louisville Marching Band.
The most well-known tradition is the lush garland of 554 red roses awarded to the Kentucky Derby winner each year. The idea of making the rose the race's official flower originated in 1883 when it was traditional to present roses to ladies at a post-Derby party attended by Churchill Downs founder and president, Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark. For this reason the Kentucky Derby is often referred to as "The Run for the Roses."