Why is the Kentucky Derby America’s biggest horse race?

When Americans think of horse racing, they think of the Kentucky Derby. Dubbed “the most exciting two minutes in sports”, it hasn’t earned its right to be the nation’s most prestigious race overnight. In fact, having first taken place in 1875, it has been cultivating its legacy for almost 150 years.

The Derby earns almost double the viewing figures of its fellow Triple Crown races the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes and has, unlike them, been run uninterrupted annually. Frequented by the rich and famous, celebrated by literary figures like William Faulkner and Hunter S. Thompson, and inspiring popular movies such as Secretariat and 50 to 1, it’s understandable why the Kentucky Derby has become one of the world’s most attractive spectator sports.

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Not just about the race

The Kentucky Derby has transcended horse racing. Hunter S. Thompson once referred to it as “decadent and depraved”. He was supposed to be covering the race in 1970 but in true Thompson style the gonzo journalist got wrapped up in the party atmosphere and ended up profiling those more interested in their next Kentucky “Red Eye” than anything on the track.

Not only did the Louisville-born writer’s article boost his career one year before the seminal book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas but it helped add to the Derby’s legendary status and confirm why it’s regarded as one of America’s greatest sporting occasions.

Of course, inspirational stories from the track have influenced pop culture. Secretariat, the horse which set the fastest time to complete the Derby, is one of those heartwarming tales of sporting success, dramatized in Randall Wallace’s eponymous 2010 film.

But the Derby has other reasons to be remembered for. For instance, it’s a great survivor, withstanding the pressures placed upon it from two World Wars and the economic depression. As well as attracting the world’s most famous faces over the years, from sporting greats like Muhammad Ali and Babe Ruth to film stars and even Queen Elizabeth II, the occasion is also famous for the drinking of mint juleps (a bourbon-based cocktail), fashion (particularly the lavish hats are worn by spectators), and many other dinners and galas that run alongside the event.

Beyond the track

It has also been heralded for its contribution to African-American heritage in the United States. Within its first 28 races, 15 winners were African-Americans. The NAACP honored these men in 1980 alongside the Lincoln Foundation, unveiling a plaque at Kentucky Derby Museum to commemorate their contribution to the event’s proud history.

Similarly, women have played a crucial role, with female trainers championed over the years.  Mary Hirsch was the first female trainer to run a horse in the race in 1937. Later, in 1942, of the top eight horses that finished the race, seven were owned by women. Six female jockeys have also ridden horses in the Derby but there has yet to be a female winner.

Famous champions

With a $3 million prize pool and $1.86 million going to the winner, the Kentucky Derby attracts the world’s top trainers and jockeys. It’s also understandably a massive attraction for fans seeking an exciting race to place a wager. 2019’s main event saw a betting pool worth in excess of $150 million, a figure helped by the fact that racing fans were able to place legal bets via their smartphone from 31 states. Last year’s 14-race event also surpassed 2018’s record handle of over $225 million.

And fans have had many unforgettable races to enjoy. Secretariat’s win stands out because the Thoroughbred’s time has never been bettered. However, given the popularity of underdog stories, Country House became one of the most unlikely winners in 2019 when the 65-1 long shot upset the odds.

Elsewhere, there’s the unforgettable sight of Big Brown’s break from the back of the pack to pass the entire field in 2008 while Alysheba, after nearly falling and losing his jockey, made a comeback to claim victory by ¾ of a length in 1987.

Cherished sporting tradition

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“The run for the roses”, a term coined for the race because of the blanket of 564 red roses draped over the winner, has lost none of its prestige over the years. An institution in Louisville, the event gives the Kentucky city a worldwide audience while thousands of people descend upon Churchill Downs to enjoy the festivities.

With broadcaster NBC reporting rising viewing figures, regularly surpassing 16 million and making it more popular than the final day at The Masters, “the most exciting two minutes in sports” remains one of America’s most cherished sporting traditions.