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Historical Insights The First Kentucky Derby

Jockeys—who were paid based on their performance—clamored to be a part of a derby, a race where anyone could enter a horse and win a cash prize. 1889, USA. Credit: Buyenlarge/Archive Photos/Getty Images

The First Kentucky Derby

The first Kentucky Derby in 1875 brought thousands of spectators to Louisville eager to participate in what would become an annual race steeped in tradition.

May 17, 1875, dawned clear and bright. A crowd of 10,000 entered the stadium to watch fifteen horses gallop around the track in the inaugural race at Churchill Downs—the first Kentucky Derby. The new grandstand was packed with ladies and gentlemen in their finest. On the grass in the middle of the track, children perched on their father’s shoulders to see through the crowds. A drum was tapped to signal the start, and the people erupted. The track was fast, the dirt hard and compact, and just 2 minutes and 37 seconds later Aristides crossed the finish line. A celebration with champagne and a wreath of roses took place in the winner’s circle, where all could see the champion colt. With programs clutched tightly in their fists, the crowd gradually dispersed, eager to make it back to Churchill Downs, where a new race would be held every day.