Today, the Kentucky Derby is one of the biggest events in the horse racing world, one of the three Triple Crown races. It regularly sees crowds in excess of 50,000 people. It didn’t start off that way, of course. When the first Derby was held on May 17, 1875, it was a much more modest affair.
Prior to this time, horse racing was rather informal. Wealthy horse breeders hired jockeys to race their prize horses against each other, holding the races in empty fields and parks. These races became a popular spectator sport, and the crowds started gambling on them. Soon, widespread alcohol use became part of these events as well. The crowds got rougher and rowdier, and the wealthy horse breeders soon started to devise a way to get more control over things: building race tracks.
Kentucky’s Churchill Downs was one of these race tracks. It opened in 1875, and one of the first races it held was the Kentucky Derby. Some 10,000 spectators gathered for the event, with wealthy ladies and gentlemen dressed in their fanciest finery. A drum signaled the beginning of the race. The track, hard-packed dirt, was 1 1/2 miles long, but the race was over in just 2 minutes and 37 seconds. It wasn’t even close. The winning horse, Aristides, crossed the finish line a good two lengths ahead of the second-place finisher, taking the $2,850 prize. While this may seem paltry compared to today’s million-dollar prizes, it was actually a small fortune in 1875. The winning jockey, Oliver Lewis, received 10% of it. Lewis never raced in another derby. Instead, he used his money to switch to a more lucrative and prestigious horse training and bookmaking career.