A Rail-Side Seat for Derby History

As the contenders for this year's Kentucky Derby are starting to shape up, the world has begun to turn its attention to the twin spires of Churchill Downs for the high-stakes anticipation of "the most exciting two minutes in sports." From the iconic garland of roses awaiting the champion in the winner's circle to the potent mint juleps that infuse the day with "spirit," the Kentucky Derby is an American sporting event with unmatched history, tradition, and pageantry. Over its 140-year history, the Kentucky Derby has earned international acclaim as the greatest horse race in the world while maintaining a strong sense of regional identity.

In The Kentucky Derby: How the Run for the Roses Became America's Premier Sporting Event, now available in paperback, James C. Nicholson, offers a look at the evolution of the Derby as well as its international, national, and regional importance. He details the Derby's existence as an intersection of past traditions and contemporary culture, for both Kentuckians and Americans, and examines the historical, political, and cultural significance of horse racing's most famous event. Few festivals and gatherings have maintained such a delicate balance between exuberant glamor and local approachability as the Kentucky Derby.


Rising from its humble beginnings as an American variation of England's Epsom Derby, the first Kentucky Derby was run in 1875, with nearly 10,000 curious and enthusiastic spectators. Fashionable ladies and gentlemen sat in the grandstand, parasols dotted the clubhouse veranda, and wagons carrying locals from all walks of life crowded the infield. Little did they know, these spectators were about to witness history. The inaugural Derby sparked a tradition that would last through the coming century and beyond. In the 1920s and 1930s, the momentum of the Derby grew rapidly; the first radio broadcast of the event in 1925 drew a large national audience, and Churchill Downs continued to grow despite the Great Depression.


In the face of travel restrictions and supply shortages during World War II, the Derby found it difficult to recruit and support elite Thoroughbreds. The races, however, continued, affirming the Derby's place as an American institution and furthering its national reputation. While assembling a choice lineup of horses was difficult during wartime, the Derby faces no such troubles today. Breeders, owners, and trainers from around the globe, including Saudi Arabia, Ireland, and New Zealand, bring international attention and prestige to the races. Despite weathering the social upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s and controversy with the Middle East in the wake of September 11, the Derby has remained relevant to changing American attitudes and cultures. Today, its history and tradition remain unrivaled as it stands at the pinnacle of American sport.


The Kentucky Derby, which won a 2012 Kentucky History Award given by the Kentucky Historical Society and Southern Kentucky Book Fest Kentucky Literary Award, sheds light on the brightest jewel in the Triple Crown. It examines the Derby as an American institution that has expanded into a global brand. Nicholson argues that the Derby, at its essence, is a celebration of place and American society. The term derby generally signifies a race for three-year-old horses. Thus, it is not the derby element of the Kentucky Derby that makes the race unique, but instead, the traditions and imagery associated with the event's Kentuckian roots. Nicholson calls this great tradition to post, offering readers a rail-side seat to the most exciting 140 years in history.
James C. Nicholson, author of Never Say Die: A Kentucky Colt, the Epsom Derby, and the Rise of the Modern Thoroughbred Industry, received a PhD in history from the University of Kentucky.