- Historic Sites
THE FOUNDER, BELIEVING HIS RACE A FAILURE, TOOK HIS OWN LIFE. BUT HIS CONTEST SURVIVED HIM, ENDURING SEVERAL BRUSHES WITH EXTINCTION TO BECOME AMERICA’S LONGEST-RUNNING SPORTS TRADITION. IT TURNS 125 THIS SPRING.
May/June 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 3
The hills of Kentucky have a tempered roundness to them, as if cupped in the hollow of God’s palm. A man named Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., played out his life among them. Here, a century and a quarter ago, on a coil of land just south of Louisville, he christened the Kentucky Derby, a race that would dominate his life and ultimately consume him. When he died in 1899, friends laid his body in this soil, under a blanket of bluegrass.
A century later, on the first Saturday of every May, 140,000 people venture over the backs of Clark’s hills to animate his dream. They come to witness a race that has exercised a pull on the American imagination for a century and a quarter. Perhaps they come in reverence for a creature that is a paradox of mass and lightness, an animal whose form, like a bicycle or a baseball diamond, is intrinsically, viscerally pleasing. Maybe the appeal is the elegance of the test, demanding that man and horse, in a single motion, press the limits of strength, speed, endurance, daring, resolve. Perhaps the lure is the rush of emotion that attends the winnowing of the great from the merely good, distilled into two minutes.
The Derby is the supreme hour of a supreme creature, a moment in which most falter and one transcends. It is not the richest race, not the longest, nor the fastest, but for many it is the only race. Wrote John Steinbeck: “This Kentucky Derby, whatever it is—a race, an emotion, a turbulence, an explosion—is one of the most beautiful and violent and satisfying things I have ever experienced.”
AFTER A BRIGHT START, Churchill Downs drifted into the red; by 1894 the Louisville Commercial was calling the Derby “a contest of dogs.”
Among white men Daniel Boone walked here first. From the far side of the Cumberland Gap, he saw Kentucky spilling out beneath him and believed he had found a “second naradise.” Next came the Virginians, castoffs of primogeniture and masters or horsemanship, the twin legacies of their royalist ancestors. They gazed over the rippling landscape and saw an Eden for their “blooded” horses. With them came the Pennsylvanian Amish and Mennonites, bearing in their wooden casks the seeds of Kentucky’s future, Poa pratensis , the nutrient-rich, hearty bluegrass, a manna for horses, that William Penn had imported from the Eurasian steppes. The Virginians brought the Thoroughbred here to be wedded to the land, born with the first shoots of spring, weaned with the turning of leaves, his life ultimately measured by the speed at which he moves over the Kentucky ground.
In Kentucky, wrote the racing editor Joe A. Estes, “it usually takes a horse race to settle an argument.” Within a few years of the Thoroughbred’s arrival, reckless match races were regular events on Louisville streets. Dodging speeding horses became a routine hazard of pedestrian life; on at least one occasion races were run concurrently, in opposite directions, on the same road. In 1793 terrorized locals finally banned street racing. Undaunted, horsemen built a series of racetracks, running horses in sets of marathon heats. Under this system Kentucky racing and breeding flourished for decades. But the Civil War brought armies that ransacked stud farms and destroyed tracks. By 1872 Louisville’s last track had failed.
Salvation came in the guise of a former bank teller named Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr. A grandson of the explorer William Clark, M. L. Clark was an avid racegoer who was distressed over the failure of Kentucky tracks. In 1872, at the age of twenty-six, he set off on a tour of Europe, scrutinizing the thriving tracks abroad in search of lessons on reviving Kentucky racing. Britain proved the best teacher. The nation had abandoned endurance races and heats in favor of single-event, shorter contests. Its Epsom Derby had grown into England’s racing championship.
Upon his return Clark presented an ambitious plan to Louisville’s gentry: Build an opulent track, create a championship race on the model of Epsom, cater to high-society racegoers, and the world would beat a path to Kentucky. The marquee event, the Kentucky Derby, would be restricted to elite three-year-old horses running a single mile-anda-half contest. The idea appealed to 320 Louisvillians, who put up one hundred dollars each. On eighty acres leased from his uncles (their name would later be given to the track, Churchill Downs), Clark built an extravagant racecourse, then embarked on extensive personal tours of Louisville to cajole citizens into coming to the Derby.
The first Derby Day, May 17, 1875, drew twelve thousand spectators. Jockeys raced around an infield brimming with picnicking fans, and the winners dismounted to snatch ornate silk bags, stuffed with purse money, hanging by the finish line. Ladies, dressed to the nines, were seated in a special section discreetly out of view of betting pools. In Clark’s clubhouse spectators sipped mint juleps and enjoyed the races from rockers on a veranda while Strauss waltzes played.