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The History of the Kentucky Derby, America's Longest Continuously Held Sporting Event

Let’s take a look back at some of the events that have helped shape the historic horse race.

By Adam Pockross

They say the Kentucky Derby is the most exciting two minutes in sports, but that well-earned descriptor doesn’t just happen overnight. Indeed, it’s taken a straight century and a half to get to this point, enough to make it America’s oldest continuously held major sporting event (along with its sibling race the Kentucky Oaks).

As traditionalists have come to expect on the first Saturday in May, the annual run for the roses is running wild again on May 4 (live on NBC and Peacock), with all the requisite pageantry and drama. This year, the 150th anniversary of the Kentucky Derby, will yet again showcase the most prestigious 3-year-old thoroughbreds in horse racing, all making their way around the hallowed 1+1⁄4 mile (10 furlongs) track at Churchill Downs, where the winner will drape that glorious garland of roses around its neck, and take that first possible trot toward the ever-elusive Triple Crown (followed by the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes). 

RELATED: The 2024 Kentucky Derby: What to Know About the 150th Run For the Roses

To celebrate such an eventful anniversary, let’s take a look back at the some of the events that have helped shape the Kentucky Derby.

What Is the History of the Kentucky Derby?

Nyquist, ridden by Mario Gutierrez, and Gun Runner, ridden by Florent Geroux, come out of the fourth turn during the 142nd running of the Kentucky Derby

Apparently the Lewis and Clark expedition wasn’t enough of an accomplishment for one family, because William Clark’s grandson, Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr., is the main man we have to thank for the very beginnings of the Kentucky Derby. In 1872, the Colonel went on a little European vacation, where he visited The Epsom Derby in Surrey, England (which has been running since 1780), followed by a trip to Paris, France and the French Jockey Club, organizers of the illustrious Grand Prix de Paris at Longchamp. 

When Clark returned to (his old) Kentucky (home), he organized the Louisville Jockey Club, and raised funds to build premium racing facilities nearby. Named for John and Henry Churchill who provided land for the track, those facilities would famously become known as Churchill Downs (though it wasn’t officially called that until 1937).

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According to the Kentucky Derby Museum, when the first Kentucky Derby was run on May 17, 1875, “Clark brought with him the Epsom tradition of going to the races to see and be seen, modern track rules and regulations, new ways of wagering, and a beautiful clubhouse and grandstand.” In front of some 10,000 people, Jockey Oliver Lewis rode an Ansel Williamson-trained colt named Aristides to victory, beating a field of 15 three-year-olds around the then 1+1⁄2 miles (12 furlongs) track (it was shortened to its current length in 1896) to win the inaugural Derby.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

When Is the Kentucky Derby and Where Can You Watch It? 

The race itself is at 2:30 p.m. ET on NBC! You can also stream the Kentucky Derby live on NBCSports.com, the NBC Sports app, and Peacock.

NBC Sports is the exclusive home to the biggest events in horse racing, including the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and the Breeders’ Cup World Championships. 

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