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Kentucky Derby

The Kentucky Derby is the first jewel of horse racing's Triple Crown. It is staged at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky on the first Saturday in May, capping the two-week-long Kentucky Derby Festival. The race is over one and a quarter miles (2 km).

The Kentucky Derby is also known as "The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports" for its approximate duration, and is also called "The Run for the Roses" for the blanket of roses draped over the winner.

Kentucky has been a major center of horse breeding and racing since the late 1700s due to the Ordovician fields of the Bluegrass region, which contains higher than average amounts of calcium and thus produced superior race horses. In 1872, Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., grandson of William Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition, traveled to England, visiting the Epsom 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, which eventually became the famous Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe.

Returning home to Kentucky, Clark organized the Louisville Jockey Club for the purpose of raising money to build quality racing facilities just outside of the city. The track would soon become known as Churchill Downs, named for Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr.'s relatives, John and Henry Churchill, who had provided the land for the racetrack. Officially, the racetrack was incorporated as Churchill Downs in 1937.

The Kentucky Derby was first run at 1.5 miles (2.4 km), the same distance as the Epsom Derby and the Grand Prix de Paris. In 1896, the distance was changed to its current 1.25 miles (2 km). 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 African-American 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 meet 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 floundered 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 became the preeminent thoroughbred horse race in America.

Between 1875 and 1902, African-American jockeys won 15 of the 28 runnings of the Kentucky Derby. On May 11, 1892, African-American jockey Alonzo "Lonnie" Clayton, age 15, became the youngest rider to win the Derby. The 1904 race was won by Elwood, the first Derby starter and winner to be owned by a woman, Laska Durnell. In 1915, Regret became the first filly to win the Kentucky Derby, and in 1917, the English bred colt "Omar Khayyam" became the first foreign-bred horse to win the race.

As part of gaining income, horse owners began sending their successful Derby horses to compete a few weeks later in the Preakness Stakes at the Pimlico Race Course, in Baltimore, Maryland, followed by the Belmont Stakes in Elmont, New York. The three races offered the largest purse and in 1919 Sir Barton became the first horse to win all three races. However, the term Triple Crown didn't come into use for another eleven years. In 1930, when Gallant Fox became the second horse to win all three races, sportswriter Charles Hatton brought the phrase into American usage. Fueled by the media, public interest in the possibility of a "superhorse" that could win the Triple Crown began in the weeks leading up to the Derby. Two years after the term was coined, the race, which had been run in mid-May since inception, was changed to the first Saturday in May to allow for a specific schedule for the Triple Crown races.

In 1950, legendary baseball owner and promoter Joe Engel, who managed the Chattanooga Lookouts at Engel Stadium, entered his horse, Hallieboy, who was known only as a laughing-stock underdog, that finished 10th of 14 horses in the race.

On May 3, 1952, the first national television coverage of the Kentucky Derby took place. In 1954, the purse exceeded $100,000 for the first time. In 1968, Dancer's Image became the first (and to this day the only) horse to win the race and then be disqualified after traces of phenylbutazone, an analgesic and anti-inflammatory drug, were found in the horse's urinalysis; ironically, the regulations at Kentucky thoroughbred race tracks were changed some years later, allowing horses to run on phenylbutazone.

The fastest time ever run in the Derby (at its present distance) is 1 minute 59 2/5 seconds, by Secretariat in 1973.

The 2004 Derby marked the first time that jockeys, as a result of a court order, were allowed to wear corporate advertising logos on their clothing.

In 2005, the purse distribution for the Derby was changed, so that horses finishing fifth would henceforth receive a share of the purse; previously only the first four finishers did so.

On February 1, 2006, the Louisville-based fast-food company Yum! Brands, Inc. announced a corporate sponsorship deal to call the race "The Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands".

The 2006 edition of the race was won by Barbaro, with jockey Edgar Prado aboard. The winning time was two minutes, 1.39 seconds. He won by 6.5 lengths over second place finisher Bluegrass Cat. Steppenwolfer finished third; Jazil and Brother Derek finished in a dead heat for fourth place. The race was attended by 157,536 fans, the second-largest crowd in Derby history.

Click here for the list of previous Kentucky Derby winners.

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