After last year’s upheaval of the racing calendar due to COVID-19, the Kentucky Derby is back to its rightful date on the first Saturday in May, this year falling on May 1. So let’s talk Derby—the first Kentucky Derby in 1875, which was upstaged by another race held during the six-day spring meet.
The first Kentucky Derby was held on Opening Day of the Louisville Jockey Club and Driving Park Association’s inaugural spring meeting in 1875. Four races were on the Opening Day card on Monday, May 17, highlighted by the Derby as Race 2, and the day attracted more than 12,000 attendees to the new track that would become officially known as Churchill Downs in 1883. Even the inaugural Derby had a packed infield—“The quarter-stretch and other stands were crowded, and the center of the field was filled with hundreds of carriages,” reported The Memphis Daily Appeal.
The inaugural Derby winner Aristides broke a speed record, finishing the 1½ mile race in a time of 2:37¾ against 14 other 3-year-old starters. “Right gallantly did the game and speedy son of Leamington and Sarong answer the call of his forces, for he held his own all down the stretch in spite of the most determined rushes on the part of Volcano and Verdigris, and dashed under the wire the winner of one of the fastest and hardest run races ever seen on the track,” wrote The Louisville Courier-Journal.
Yet it was the Louisville Cup on Day Four that was the star attraction of the spring meeting. The 2¼ mile race was called a “dash” versus races run in heats, and it drew an estimated 15,000–20,000 fans to the course, known then as Driving Park. “Thursday (Cup day) was reserved for the greatest crowd which probably ever witnessed a race,” reported New York’s Daily Graphic. “Not only the citizens, but the entire State seems to have turned out in force.”
Ballankeel, the son of the undefeated Asteroid and grandson of the great Lexington, beat a field of seven other horses to win the Louisville Cup easily by two open lengths. The time of 4:01½ was considered so exceptional that the length of the track was questioned, but an engineer provided its measurement at 17 inches over a mile and presented a certificate verifying such to the judges’ stand.
When the Cup itself—valued at $1,000—was awarded to Ballankeel’s owner Mr. Jennings, the crowd cheered, “Let the horse drink out of it!”
This was accordingly done, Ballankeel putting his nose against the gold lining, wetting his lips, and then gallantly raising his head to acknowledge the applause of the multitude.”—The Daily Graphic
The Daily Arkansas Gazette reported the following concise headline about the day: “Success of the Louisville Jockey Club—A Horse Drinks Like a Man—A Good Time Generally.”
In addition to the highly entertaining Louisville Cup, the first race on the card on Thursday was the inaugural running of the Falls City Stake, which was contested in mile heats and was won by the favorite, the colt Camargo, who defeated six other 3-year-olds in two heats (1:42¾ and 1:43¼); today this race is run as the Falls City Handicap.
As the Kentucky Derby was modeled after England’s Epsom Derby, the Louisville Jockey Club’s Kentucky Oaks was likewise a replication of the Epsom Oaks. Six 3-year-old fillies competed in the first Kentucky Oaks at the 1½ mile distance on Wednesday (Day Three), the winner being Vinaigrette, who was erroneously listed as a 5-year-old in the New York Herald-Tribune’s race summary. Time, 2:39¾.
The Jockey Club designed one more race with the English St. Leger Stakes in mind; this was the first Clark Stakes, then a two miler for 3-year-olds that was held on Closing Day, Saturday, with Voltigeur prevailing over 11 other starters in a time of 3:50¼.
Racing was alive again in Louisville, for the launch of the new race course and the inaugural Louisville Jockey Club meeting were collectively a spectacular success. “The grand stand is a beautiful amphitheatre with slender iron columns and a beauty of finish that is superior even to the ladies’ stand at Saratoga,” remarked The Daily Graphic.
“The entire race can be witnessed from the grand stand without rising from the seat; nevertheless yesterday (Derby Day) 3,500 people rose simultaneously with the start of the horses, and remained standing until the race was over.”
And the fans have remained standing. Whether it be at home or at the track, we are still compelled to stand today, 146 years later, to witness this race and this sport, with its magnificent triumphs to its most devastating defeats—forgoing our seats as thousands did on opening day at the Louisville track that became the iconic home of horse racing and the Kentucky Derby.