History of the Kentucky derby

Categories: Horse RacingRace

The Kentucky Derby, one of the three races needed to acquire the triple crown, is exemplified by Tower such that 'the Derby is the proving ground which leads to lasting success or ultimate failure' ( 1957, para. 5) for the three-year old generation of thoroughbreds. Derby weekend, held the first saturday of every May is overviewed by more than 250,000 patrons to racing assembled within Churchill Downs (Nicholson, 2013). As the Kentucky Derby remains the most publicly known horse race in America, it’s roots within its establishment, role and engagement of the minorities, and traditions, have allowed it to endure and flourish for over a century.

The Kentucky Derby came to be through a beginning with an English influence. In 1872 Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr., grandson of William Clark, and his wife traveled to Great Britain and mainland Europe. While there, the couple met with members of the elite English and French racing associations, as well as touring top race facilities. Upon arrival back in the States, Clark Jr.

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planned to model his racetrack off Epsom Downs, where the one and a half mile English Derby which is held for 3 year olds takes place annually (Nicholson, 2013). To further Clark's vision, he obtained three-hundred-twenty sponsors. Each sponsor contributed one-hundred dollars to the construction of a track and grandstand for the Louisville Jockey Club and Driving Park Association. The structure was built on eighty acres of Henry and John Churchill's land, both of which were uncles of Clark Jr. (Nicholson, 2013). Upon the establishment of the track by M.

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Lewis Clark in 1875, three major races were to be run. In model to the English races of the Epsom Derby, Epsom Oaks, ad St. Leger Stakes, the races to be run at Churchill downs were the Kentucky Derby, Kentucky Oaks, and the Clark Handicap (Brodowsky & Philbin, 2007). Clark presided as the president of the Louisville Jockey Club until his demotion on November 11, 1884. Dismissed to a presiding judge, he would determine the race winner. The demotion followed in suit to the lack of revenue from the race, as well as his unwillingness to modify the race length from one and a half miles. William F. Schulte then filled as president, constructing a new grandstand with architect designed spire logos to be placed on the roof in the off season of 1894 to 1895. During that time, the race length of the derby shifted to one and one fourth miles (Brodowsky & Philbin, 2007). As national interest in the Kentucky Derby declined, it began to balance on the edge of closure. In 1902, Churchill Down's secretary persuaded Mark Winn to purchase the track and change the operation. Following careful consideration Winn sold his business to become vice president and general manager of Churchill Downs (Brodowsky & Philbin, 2007). Resulting from Winn’s involvement and promotion of the Derby, it is stated, 'The race turned a profit, something that had not been done in the Derby's first twenty-eight years,' (Brodowsky & Philbin, 2007, p. 9). Winn continued to make the Derby rise, even with the intervention by the law mandating changes. With the issuing of the 1908 proclamation of Louisville officials, Winn brought back the pari-mutual machines, allowing for the legal continuation of betting at the track as bookmakers were blocked while in city limits. Also, with the World War I movement closing tracks nationally, Winn opened and raced at tracks in Mexico to keep the sport alive (Brodowsky & Philbin, 2007). Among lows faced in it’s entirety of the Kentucky Derby, Nicholson (2013) describes that, 'Lord Derby's attendance thus reinforced American's belief that the Kentucky Derby was a major event and worthy of world wide attention, lending the Derby and American racing an increased stature'(p. 85).

Through the development of the Kentucky Derby, the minority groups had a prominent impact. The running of the first Kentucky Derby in 1875 was won by a horse named Aristides, owned by H.P. McGrath, a white man. However the win was at the hand of both the African-American trainer and jockey, Ansel Williamson and Oliver Lewis (Brodowsky & Philbin, 2007). A tone was set for Blacks within the race industry the first year, with a field of 15 horses, where 13 were being ridden by African-American Jockeys. Succeeding the first, 15 of the next 28 races were won by African-American jockeys. Following the Civil War, doors were opened to the blacks. However still under the white supremacy of the time, not more than 30 years subsequent to the first Derby, the majority field of black jockeys was overturned to become a majority field of white jockeys. Partial blame for this was to the Jim Crow influence in the late 1880s (Jerardi, 2013).While the track was predominantly blacks, Nicholson (2013) explains 'Relationships between white owners and their black trainers and jockeys in the years immediately after the Civil War continued to have undertones of a master-slave relationship' (p. 33). Within the first twenty-five years of the Derby's running, and before the turn of jockey majority, African-American jockey Isaac Murphy set a record and took the lead to claim wins in the Kentucky Derby of 1881, 1890, and 1891 (Shoop, 2004). As the Derby became more popular, the decline in the number of Black jockeys became prominent. Many faced threats and sabotage from other jockeys, especially those winning and consistently doing well, such as Jimmy Winkfield. Best stated by Williams, 'Winkfield's winning ways couldn't compete with America's racism. The more races he won, the more hatred he faced', (Williams, 2013, para. 14). As the track continued to be racially dominated by whites from the early 1900s, history was made with the serving of Chair by a black man named William E. Summers III in 1984. Consecutively, history was also made by Summers' son William E Summers IV, who served as a chairman for the Kentucky Derby Festival board at the same time that the first black jockey raced since racing became a predominantly white sport (Blacks make history at the Kentucky Derby with black chairman and black jockey, 2000).

Contrary to the Blacks in racing, women were only encouraged to come and watch. M. Clark aimed for the most attendance possible on derby day and therefore encouraged everyone to come, women included. As the derby arrived and womens attendance became prevalent, ladies had become separated in a segregation type of way from the 'betting shed', where the gambling took place (Nicholson, 2013). Although it was encouraged that women attend this annual event, it wasn't until 29 years later that a woman had a partaking in the derby, other than observing. Mrs. Charles Durnell became the first female to ever own a competing horse, and much less a winner in 1904. Also, she was the first woman to have bred Kentucky Derby winner, Elwood, being the horse to help establish the milestone (On this date, 2010).

Throughout many years while aspects of the Kentucky Derby changed, some never did and still remain a part of modern day’s race. To begin the race, My Old Kentucky Home, written by Stephen Foster, is played. Although the original derby date for the first playing of the song is unclear, it is dated that it has been performed by the University of Louisville marching band every year since the derby of 1936, (Brodowsky & Philbin, 2007). Following the completion of the race, the winner is honored in the winner's circle. The winner's circle formed from 1875 to 1929, when the winners would station on the track in a circle drawn in chalk. Following, from 1930-1937, the winners were honored in an area that adjoined to the clubhouse. Post the 1937 Derby, a presentation stand in the infield was constructed with an electric odds board. The winners have been honored there since the 1938 Derby, and the win by Lawrin, (Brodowsky & Philbin, 2007). Horses in the winner’s circle are honored with the garland of roses laid across their wither’s. Beginning with the 1883 post Derby party where E. Berry Wall endowed roses to all of the ladies attending the party. Following that and beginning with the 1884 Derby, Clark made the rose the official flower of the Kentucky Derby. The Derby of 1886 was the first account of horses being donned with roses, however it is still unclear if the roses presented were sanctioned by the Jockey Club. By 1931, a standard pattern was formed containing 564 hand picked roses. The First garland to be presented was given to the 1932 winner Burgoo King, (Brodowsky & Philbin, 2007). The making of the garland is annually started at 4pm on the Friday evening before Derby day. Making the garland takes place at the Kroger Store in Louisville and the crew works ten to twelve hours to complete the assembly. Upon the completion of the garland the crew decorates the winner's circle with the remaining 2,100 roses that were not selected to be incorporated into the garland (Brodowsky & Philbin, 2007). The green satin backing, of which the roses are hand sewn on, is described by Brodowsky and Philbin as 'One end displays the twin-spires logo of Churchill Downs, and the other end is represented by the great seal of the Commonwealth of Kentucky' (2007, p. 15). The roses are arranged so that the center is a ring constituting an equivalent number of roses to horses competing, with one rising above in the center to symbolize that of heart and conflict presented by the recipient of the garland. As the rose progressed to become a signature of the Derby with the winning horse being draped with a garland of roses, Shoop (2004) states 'in 1925, sportswriter Bill Corum coined the phrase, 'Run for the Roses,' to describe the Derby,' (p.5). In addition to the presenting of the garland of roses to be draped over the winning horse in the winner's circle, the jockey is also presented with a display of roses. The Jockey's Bouquet, consisting of sixty long-stemmed roses wrapped in ten yards of red ribbons, is awarded to the winning rider (Brodowsky & Philbin, 2007).

The Kentucky Derby marks a milestone in American history, with an annual past-time attracting abundances of partakers in the festivities. Without the origins of creation, and role of African-Americans and women, the race would have not developed to what the modern era knows it to be. As well, the continuous customs provide a similarity from year to year that is looked forward to by all that attend.

Updated: Apr 25, 2022
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History of the Kentucky derby. (2022, Apr 08). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/history-of-the-kentucky-derby-essay

History of the Kentucky derby essay
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