Kentucky Derby

The Kentucky Derby is one of the longest-running horse races on earth. Having been run every year since 1875, the Derby is the first leg of the annual American Triple Crown circuit that also features the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes.

What is there to know about the Kentucky Derby?


Churchill DownsAs mentioned above, the first running of the Kentucky Derby took place in 1875. For its first 20 years, horses ran 1 ½ miles, which was the same distance as another well-known horse race, the Epsom Derby. Starting in 1896, though, the Kentucky Derby changed to its current 1 ¼ mile format.

The very first race drew an estimated crowd of around 10,000 people and featured a field of three 15-year-old horses. Aristides was the name of the horse that won the inaugural derby, and would later go on to win the Belmont, as well.

The derby ran into some financial difficulties in the latter years of the 1800s before Col. Matt Winn along with a group of businessmen purchased the facility, known as Churchill Downs, in 1902. The new ownership group injected new life into the derby, and it quickly rose to become the most prominent horse race in the United States.

Road to the Kentucky Derby

In order to run in the derby, a horse may be no older than three-years-old. The derby itself is held on the first Saturday of every May. To run in the event, a horse must first qualify via the Road to the Kentucky Derby. The Road is a points system that uses results from about 35 stakes races comprised of two- and three-year old thoroughbreds.

Qualifying season has two phases, called the Prep Season and the Championship Series. The prep season begins in late September and runs through February, and it consists of races on synthetic or dirty surfaces that run at least one mile.

The horses that finish first through fourth in those races are awarded points. First place gets 10 points, second place gets four, third place gets two and fourth place earns one point. This excludes the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, which awards 20 points to first place, eight to second, four to third and two to fourth place finishers.

The championship season has two legs and a wild card round. The first leg is comprised of minor prep races and has a points scale of 50 to first, 20 to second, 10 to third and five to fourth place finishers. Phase two consists of major prep races and awards points on a 100-40-20-10 scale. The wild card round is a lone race that awards points on a 10-4-2-1 scale.

Once both qualifying seasons are complete, the top 19 earning horses earn an automatic spot in the Kentucky Derby. The 20th position is offered to a horse from Japan. If any of the 20 horses is forced to drop out, the next-best points earners from qualifying season will be eligible to replace them in the race.

Actual starting positions for the Derby are awarded via a random draw. The Road to the Kentucky Derby was officially introduced in 2012 as a means of clearly identifying which horses are prestigious enough to participate in the main event.


Horse RacingAs you may expect for an event with as lengthy a history as the Kentucky Derby, there is no shortage of tradition involved. While the race itself typically only lasts about two-and-a-half minutes, the atmosphere building up to the event is what most attendees are paying for.

People that attend the derby typically wear lavish, sometimes outlandish clothing. Women often don large, over-the-top hats, while men typically opt for plenty of pastel suits and hats. Really, the Kentucky Derby is just one huge party.

The traditional beverage served at the event is called the mint julep, which is an iced drink containing bourbon, mint and sugar syrup. Skewers are a popular food option at Churchill Downs as well. Called a burgoo, it is a hefty stick of chicken, beef, pork and vegetables.

People have the option of purchasing tickets to watch the race from the infield, though the infield doesn’t always offer great views of the Derby itself. More wealthy attendees may opt for the lavish box seats, or your standard bleacher seats.

Attendance, Betting and Purse

Churchill Downs has been expanded over the years as the event grows more and more popular. The 2016 running of the Derby drew 167,227 fans, which was the second-largest crowd in the history of the event. Only the 2015 Derby drew more, with 170,513 in attendance.

As you may imagine, live betting on the Kentucky Derby is a big part of the fun and draw. All undercard races plus the Derby itself in 2016 drew the second-most in wagers ever, with $192.6 million bet on the event from all sources. That was just one percent short of the previous record, set the year prior. Betting on the final race drew $124.7 million in wagers alone, though that was down 10 percent from the record set in 2015, as well.

More than $23 million was bet at the track itself for the 2016 running of the race, which was up two percent from the year prior. The record for the most money bet on-site at the Derby is $23.7 million, set in 2012.

The horse that won the 2016 Kentucky Derby, Nyquist, earned a purse worth $1.63 million. The top five finishing horses all earned money, with second place earning $400,000 and third place getting $200,000.


Two jockies, Eddie Acaro and Bill Hartack, are tied for the most ever wins at the Kentucky Derby, with five. Acaro won in 1938, 1941, 1945, 1948 and 1952, while Hartack claimed first place in 1957, 1960, 1962, 1964 and 1969.

Trainer Ben Jones holds the record for most wins by a trainer, with six. Owner Calumet Farm owned a record eight horses that won the Derby between 1941 and 1968.

While most horses typically take right around two minutes to win the race, the fastest time ever recorded at the Kentucky Derby was Secretariat’s insane time of 1:59:40 in 1973. Secretariat would go on to win the Triple Crown that year, becoming the first horse to accomplish the feat in 25 years at the time. Secretariat won the Belmont Stakes by a record 31 lengths, which is widely considered to be the most dominant individual performance by a thoroughbred ever.

The record margin of victory at the Kentucky Derby is eight lengths, and it’s shared by Old Rosebud (1914), Assault (1946), Whirlaway (1941) and Johnstown (1939).

Odds-on favorites have a solid record at the Derby, but that certainly doesn’t guarantee victory. In 1913, despite 91-to-1 odds of winning, Donerail shocked the field and took home the top prize.

American Pharoah became the most recent horse to win the Triple Crown in 2015. He won the Derby with a time of 2:03:02. Nyquist, the 2016 champion, won it in 2:01:31.