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From humble beginnings to a cultural event: 150 years of the Kentucky Derby

Horses race in the Kentucky Derby.
J. Tyler Franklin
Horses race in the 2021 Kentucky Derby.

The 150th running of the Kentucky Derby is Saturday. Over the years, it's become the biggest institution of horse racing in America. But how did it begin?

LPM’s Bill Burton spoke with the Kentucky Derby museum’s Director of Curatorial and Educational Affairs, Chris Goodlett about the Derby’s history.

Bill Burton: The first Kentucky Derby was in 1875. But let's go back a little bit further than that. How did the idea of this race come together?

Chris Goodlett: Well, the Louisville Jockey Club and driving Park Association, the original name of Churchill Downs, was founded around 1874. And the first race meet was in May of 1875 with the very first Kentucky Derby. Our founder was Merriweather Lewis Clark Jr. One of the major inspirations behind the founding of the track had to do with horse breeding here in the state of Kentucky.

It was devastated by the Civil War. That was one of the reasons that those involved in that industry felt they needed a racing program that would get people really interested in horse breeding again, and they saw that happening in the city of Louisville. And that was one of the major reasons behind the founding of the Louisville Jockey Club and the creation of the Kentucky Derby.

BB: The early years of the Derby were dominated largely by black jockeys until Jim Crow laws forced them out. The then governing body of the sport the Jockey Club also played a role. What did they do?

CG: Well, African American jockeys, of course, did dominate the early Derbies. In the very first race 1875, 13 of 15 jockeys were black. African American jockeys won over half the first 28 runnings of the Derby up through 1902. As we get into the 19th and 20th century, segregation, Jim Crow laws take hold, push African Americans out of the sport. That happens in a couple of ways. Governing bodies of the industry were making it very difficult, sometimes impossible for black jockeys to get licenses.

But also, as we're looking at industrialization and leisure time in urban areas, and the attractiveness of a sport, there's more motivation for white jockeys to participate. And the white jockeys actually are participating in what we call rough riding tactics on the race track in early 20th century. Where those white jockeys are basically running their black counterparts up against the rail, risky great injury to the jockeys and to the horse. So that was a second way that black jockeys were pushed out in that era of segregation at the turn of the 20th century.

BB: What was the tipping point for the Derby when it became clear that this race was going to become the major industry event that it is today?

CG: Well, it's often the case it's hard to point to one thing that really led to the Kentucky Derby becoming this major, international cultural and sporting event. But when Matt Wynn took over in the early 1900s, he had a management team that was very dedicated to doing a couple of things. I would say three things, actually. Making the Derby something greater on the sporting calendar, number one.

Number two, they were looking at doing offseason events at Churchill Downs that would keep the track in the media even when there was no racing, such as creating a bandstand where you get to have concerts at the track in the offseason. And Matt Wynn himself known as a master marketer also would really caught the East Coast media in the 20th century trying to get the best sports writers in general writers to cover the Kentucky Derby which he was largely successful. But in addition to that, we had a little bit of luck. In the 19th century, one of the things that really was a detriment to the track, were bookmakers, who really kind of controlled the odds and controlled the wagering.

A lot of folks had problems with that because they could be accused of unscrupulous tactics. They were actually banned to Kentucky around 1907 1908. And Matt Wynn and Charles Granger, one of his colleagues on the management team found an old law from 1878, allowing for paramutual machines to conduct gambling at racetracks. So they use those prominently in 1908. That's still the main method of wagering that we use today.

This transcript was edited for clarity.

Bill Burton is the Morning Edition host for LPM. Email Bill at
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