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15 Kentucky Derby Facts You Probably Didn’t Know

Commonly known as the “Running of the Roses,” the Kentucky Derby is America’s most famous horse race. This iconic race is full of traditions, from sipping on refreshing Mint Juleps to wearing extravagant hats.

Since 1875, the Kentucky Derby has taken place on the first Saturday in May. The prestigious race is held at the beautiful Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. Often attended by large crowds, including celebrities, the Kentucky Derby is the first race in the coveted Triple Crown.

Every year, the most talented three-year-old Thoroughbreds race a distance of 1 ¼ miles. After what is called the “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sport”, the winner is draped with a blanket of roses. Only the best of the best Thoroughbreds partake in this prestigious race.

First, here are common Kentucky Derby statistics:

Location:Churchill Downs, Louisville, Kentucky, U.S
Inaugurated:May 17, 1875 (146 years ago)
Distance:1 1⁄4 miles (10 furlongs; 2 km)
Record:1:59.40, Secretariat (1973)
Purse:US$3 million. 1st: $1,860,000

Here are 15 Kentucky Derby facts.

1. The Kentucky Derby Got its Start Thanks to Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr.- Grandson of Famed Explorer William Clark

The origin of the Kentucky Derby traces back to 1872, when Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr., the grandson of famous explorer William Clark, traveled to England. While in England, Clark attended the historic Epsom Derby.

After England, Clark traveled to France where he met with members of the French Jockey Club in Paris. Upon returning home to America, he was inspired to start a horse racing spectacle in the states. Clark’s uncles, John and Henry Churchill, gifted him land to create a racetrack. He developed a group of local racing enthusiasts, forming the Louisville Jockey Club.

After raising funds with the help of the club, the racetrack opened on May 17th, 1875, and hosted the very first Kentucky Derby. Fifteen horses raced that year in front of a crowd of 10,000, with Aristides taking home the first win.

Since its beginning, the Kentucky Derby has never been canceled or postponed for bad weather. Only twice has the race been postponed, in 1945 due to WWII and 2020 due to COVID. The derby has occurred every year since its origin.

2. Originally the Race Was 1 ½ Miles

Originally, the Kentucky Derby was 1 ½ miles long, which is the same distance as the Epsom Derby, which helped inspire the race. The race was 1 ½ miles until 1896, when officials changed the distance to 1 ¼ miles. Ever since then, the race has always been 1 ¼ miles.

3. There Have Only Been Four Winners Bred Outside the United States

Out of the 146 Kentucky Derby winners, only four horses were born outside the United States. Those four horses are Tomy Lee, Omar Khayyam, Sunny’s Halo, and Northern Dancer.

Omar Khayyam became the first foreign-bred horse to win the Kentucky Derby in 1917. The British-born colt was sold as a yearling to an American racing partnership.

Born in England, Tomy Lee took home the Kentucky Derby win in 1959. Texas millionaire Fred Turner, Jr. purchased Tomy Lee as a weanling from a sale in England and another Thoroughbred, Tuleg. Turner purchased Tomy Lee to be a companion of Tuleg when he traveled. However, Tomy Lee proved to be a stellar racehorse, while Tuleg’s career fell flat.

Born in Canada, Northern Dancer took home the Kentucky Derby in 1964. Northern Dancer also won the Preakness Stakes, but fell short of the Triple Crown by coming in third in the Belmont Stakes. He went on to become one of the most influential Thoroughbred stallions in the 20th century.

Another Canadian-born horse, Sunny’s Halo, won the Kentucky Derby in 1983. He raced in both America and Canada throughout his career.

Horses racing in the 2014 Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs
Credit: Bill Brine (Flickr)

4. Kentucky is Home to the Most Winners

Not only is the Bluegrass State home to the Kentucky Derby, but it is also home to the most Kentucky Derby winners. A whopping 107 Kentucky Derby winners were born in Kentucky. The state with the second most winners is Florida, with seven winners born in the Sunshine State.

5. Secretariat Holds the Record for the Fastest Kentucky Derby

The legendary Secretariat holds the record for the fastest Kentucky Derby time at 1:59.40. He set the record in 1973 after beating Northern Dancer’s time of 2:00:00.

Secretariat went on to not only win the Triple Crown, but also set record times in the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes as well. His incredible 1973 Triple Crown win was one for the ages.

6. Kingman Holds the Record for the Slowest Kentucky Derby

Kingman holds the record for the slowest Kentucky Derby win at 2:52.25 in 1891, when the race was still 1 ½ miles. In 1908, Stone Street became the slowest winner at 1 ¼ miles, with a time of 2:15.20, about 16 seconds slower than Secretariat’s record win.

7. Only One Person Has Won as a Jockey and Later as a Trainer

Johnny Longden is the only person to win the Kentucky Derby as a jockey and then later as a trainer. In 1943, Longden took the title home aboard Count Fleet, with who he went on to win the Triple Crown.

After retiring as a jockey in 1959, Longden became a trainer. In 1969, he trained the Kentucky Derby winner Majestic Prince. Majestic Prince went on to win the Preakness Stakes and came in second in the Belmont Stakes, just missing out on the Triple Crown.

8. Only Three Fillies Have Won

In the history of the Kentucky Derby’s 146 winners, only three horses have been fillies. Those three fillies are Regret, Genuine Risk, and Winning Colors.

Regret took home the Kentucky Derby in 1915, the first filly to do so. She is the first of four horses ever to win all three Saratoga Race Course events for two-year-olds. In addition, she also became the first horse to win the Kentucky Derby undefeated in her career.

Sixty-five years later, Genuine Risk became the second filly to win the Kentucky Derby in 1980. After a controversial Preakness Stakes where she got bumped, the filly came in second place. In addition, she came in second in the Belmont Stakes as well.

Winning Colors won the Kentucky Derby in 1988. She also raced in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, coming in third place and sixth place, respectively.

9. The Youngest Jockey to Ever Win Was Just 15

At just 15 years old, Alonzo Clayton is the youngest jockey ever to win the Kentucky Derby. Clayton won the 1892 Kentucky Derby aboard Azra.

At the age of 12, Clayton left home to follow in his brother’s footsteps and began a career as an exercise rider. His talent quickly shined through, and at the age of 14, he became a professional jockey. In addition to winning the Derby, Clayton and Azra also won the Clark Handicap and the Travers Stakes.

10. The Oldest Jockey to Ever Win Was 54

As one of the most successful jockeys ever, Bill Shoemaker won the Kentucky Derby four times. Shoemaker is also the oldest jockey to win the Kentucky Derby at age 54 in 1986 aboard Ferdinand.

Shoemaker’s career as a jockey began when he was just a teenager. He quickly skyrocketed to success and, for 29 years held the record for the most wins by a jockey. Though he never won the Triple Crown, he won 11 Triple Crown races over a span of four decades.

11. A Large Amount of Mint Juleps and Food Are Consumed Each Year

Every year, thousands of people gather to watch the Kentucky Derby, with a record crowd of 170,513 in 2015. Year after year, spectators consume large amounts of food and drinks as they gather to watch the best of Thoroughbred racing.

Every year, guests consume approximately 120,000 Mint Juleps at Churchill Downs during “The Run for the Roses.” This requires 1,000 pounds of mint plants, 60,000 pounds of ice, and 10,000 bottles of bourbon.

A normal Mint Julep at the Kentucky Derby will cost you just $6.99. However, the most expensive Mint Julep at the race cost $2,500 and is served in a gold cup.

In addition to drinking Mint Juleps, the crowd consumes a lot of food. On average, 142,000 hot dogs, 18,000 BBQ sandwiches, 30,000 cookies, 300,000 strawberries, and 1,892 sheets of Derby Pie are eaten every year.

Churchill Downs crowd for the 2006 Kentucky Derby
Credit: Richard Hurt (Flickr)

12. It Costs $25,000 to Enter a Horse

To enter a horse in the Kentucky Derby costs a small fortune. A $25,000 entry fee and a $25,000 starting fee are required to compete.

In addition to the $50,000 entry and starting fees, there are also nomination fees. The nomination fee is $600 and late nominations cost $6,000. For those who wait till April, the nomination fee is a whopping $200,000.

The current purse for the Kentucky Derby is $3 million and no more than 20 horses can be entered. The winner takes home $1.86 million, second place gets $600,000, third place gets $300,000, fourth place gets $150,000 and fifth place gets $90,000. Owners can make a lot of money off of the Kentucky Derby, but they must already have a large sum to begin with.

13. Thirteen Horses Have Gone on to Win the Triple Crown

Just 13 of the 146 Kentucky Derby winners went on to win the Triple Crown. The Triple Crown winners are Sir Barton (1919), Gallant Fox (1930), Omaha (1935), War Admiral (1937), Whirlaway (1941), Count Fleet (1943), Assault (1946), Citation (1948), Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977), Affirmed (1978), American Pharoah (2015) and Justify (2018).

14. Bob Baffert Has the Most Kentucky Derby Wins Out of All Trainers

Bob Baffert holds the record for the most Kentucky Derby wins by a trainer with seven. After being tied with trainer Ben Jones at six races, Baffert took the title in 2021 after training winner Medina Spirit.

Baffert’s Kentucky Derby winners are Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998), War Emblem (2002), American Pharoah (2015), Justify (2018), Authentic (2020), and Medina Spirit (2021). Baffert is also the trainer of the two most recent Triple Crown winners, American Pharoah and Justify.

Also read, 6 interesting facts you didn’t know about Bob Baffert.

15. Jockeys Eddie Acaro and Bill Hartack Have the Most Kentucky Derby Wins

Eddie Acaro and Bill Hartack are tied with the most Kentucky Derby wins by a jockey, with five apiece. Acaro also has the most Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes wins at six each.

Included in our list of the Triple Crown winning jockeys, Eddie Acaro won the Kentucky Derby in 1938 with Lawrin, in 1941 with Whirlaway, in 1945 with Hoop Jr., in 1948 with Citation, and in 1952 with Hill Gail. He is also the only jockey to win the Triple Crown twice, with Whirlaway and Citation.

Hartack won the Kentucky Derby in 1957 with Iron Liege, in 1960 with Venetian Way, in 1962 with Decidedly, in 1964 with Northern Dancer, and in 1969 with Majestic Prince. Though he never won the Triple Crown, Hartack won the Preakness Stakes three times and the Belmont Stakes once.

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KEVIN

Monday 20th of September 2021

Where can u get a Mint Julep at the derby for $6.99?

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