In 1872, Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., grandson of William Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition, traveled to England, visiting the 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 at Longchamp, 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 the city. The track would soon become known as Churchill Downs, named for John and Henry Churchill, who provided the land for the racetrack. Officially, the racetrack was incorporated as Churchill Downs in 1937.
The Kentucky Derby was first run at 1 1⁄2 miles (2.4 kilometres), the same distance as the Epsom Derby. The distance was changed in 1896 to its current 1 1⁄4 miles (2.0 kilometres). 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 meeting 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 foundered 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.
Derby participants are limited to three-year-old horses. No horse since Apollo in 1882 has won the Derby without having raced at age two.
1932. Chicago Tribune historical photo. Burgoo King in the winner’s circle at the 1932 Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. King was ridden by jockey Eugene James on May 7, 1932, to win the historic race. King went on to win the Preakness Stakes in 1932 but didn’t compete in the Belmont Stakes, and therefore missed winning the Triple Crown.
1922. Chicago Tribune historical photo. The crowd at the May 13, 1922, Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. Morvich, an American Thoroughbred, was the winning horse, ridden by jockey Albert Johnson.
1927. Chicago Tribune historical photo. Whiskery was the winner of the Kentucky Derby on May 14, 1927, at Churchill Downs. The American Thoroughbred was ridden by jockey Linus McAtee, who went on to win the 1929 Kentucky Derby.
1928. Chicago Tribune historical photo. The Chicago Athletic Association is on board the Derby Special train the night before the big race, bound for the May 19, 1928, Kentucky Derby in Louisville, Ky.
1924. Chicago Tribune historical photo. The crowd at the May 17, 1924, Kentucky Derby fills the grandstand at Churchill Downs. Black Gold was the winning horse, ridden by J.D. Mooney.
1927. Chicago Tribune historical photo. A view of the track and grandstand at Churchill Downs during the Kentucky Derby on May 14, 1927. Whiskery was the winner of the race, ridden by Linus McAtee.
1929. Chicago Tribune historical photo. Many Chicagoans took off by plane May 18, 1929, for Churchill Downs to witness the 55th annual Kentucky Derby. The Nekoosa Edwards Paper Co. party, guests of the Edgewater Beach Hotel, included Mrs. Cyrus L. Garnett, Mrs. B. Potter, Mrs. Viola Bender, Mrs. Dora O’Brien, Mrs. Kenneth Kelly, Mrs. J.U. McLachlan, Mrs. Charles McDonald and Mrs. M. Nichols.
1929. Chicago Tribune historical photo. The 1929 Kentucky Derby was raced in a downpour, making for a very sloppy track. Crowds stand in the rain at Churchill Downs on May 18, 1929, to watch the race. Clyde Van Dusen was the winning horse, ridden by jockey Linus McAtee.
1929. Chicago Tribune historical photo. Traveling from Chicago to the Kentucky Derby on Universal Airlines are Larry Roche, from left, Tom Koehler, C.J. Ryan, W.J. Buhler, H.F. Condon, E.A. Stephan, E.J. Bell, J. Billings, H. Whitener, J.C. Kelly and R. Armstrong on May 18, 1929.
A rainy derby Chicago Tribune historical photo Hardy race fans stand in the rain at the Kentucky Derby in this undated photo.
1933. Chicago Tribune historical photo. The 1933 Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs was won by Brokers Tip and jockey Don Meade. The finish of the 1933 race is known as the “Fighting Finish” because Meade and jockey Herb Fisher, riding rival Head Play, fought one another down the home stretch. Brokers Tip won by a nose.
1929. Chicago Tribune historical photo. The Illinois Athletic Club boards the Derby Special the night before the Kentucky Derby held on May 18, 1929, in Louisville, Ky.
1934. Chicago Tribune historical photo. The 1934 Kentucky Derby winner is Cavalcade ridden by jockey Mack Garner, shown here in the winner’s circle at Churchill Downs.
1935. Chicago Tribune historical photo. The racehorses are led down the track during the May 4, 1935, Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. Omaha, ridden by jockey Willie Saunders, won the race and went on to win the Triple Crown in 1935. Omaha was only the third race horse in history to win the Triple Crown.
1936. Chicago Tribune historical photo. Crowds gather near the track at Churchill Downs during the Kentucky Derby on May 2, 1936. Bold Venture was the winning horse.
1935. Chicago Tribune historical photo. Horses break out of the starting gate during the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 4, 1935. The horse Omaha, who went on to win the Triple Crown in 1935, won the derby.
1936. Chicago Tribune historical photo. Bold Venture, with jockey Ira “Babe” Hanford, in the winner’s circle at the 1936 Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. Hanford was just 18 years old and an apprentice jockey when he won the race.
1936. Chicago Tribune historical photo. On May 2, 1936, Bold Venture, ridden by Ira “Babe” Hanford, won the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. Hanford was an 18-year-old apprentice jockey who had never competed in the Kentucky Derby.
1936. Chicago Tribune historical photo. Jockey Ira Hanford, 18, center, and Bold Venture won the 1936 Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.