Dear Readers: Since the following post is outside the realm of antebellum racing, we are making an exception in order to honor the current Triple Crown season with coverage of the first Derby.—Editor, Antebellum Turf Times
It may have been the first Kentucky Derby, but it wasn’t the star attraction of the Louisville Jockey Club’s six-day inaugural spring meeting in 1875.
Opening day on Monday, May 17, 1875, drew more than 12,000 attendees to the new track that would later become known as Churchill Downs in the early 1880’s; four races were on the day’s card, highlighted by the second contest for three-year-olds, the Kentucky Derby.
And Derby winner Aristides broke a speed record for three-year-olds, finishing the 1½ mile race in a time of 2:37¾ against 14 other starters.
Yet it was day four of the race meeting and the Louisville Cup, a “dash” at 2¼ miles, that attracted an estimated 15,000–20,000 fans to the course, known then as Driving Park. “Not only the citizens, but the entire State seems to have turned out in force,” the Daily Graphic reported. Ballankiel beat a field of seven other horses, winning the Cup easily.
The time of 4:01½ was considered so exceptional that the length of the track was questioned, but an engineer provided its measurement at seventeen inches over a mile, presenting a certificate verifying such to the judges’ stand.
When the Cup itself—valued at $1,000—was awarded to owner Mr. Jennings, the crowd cheered, “Let the horse drink out of it!”
This was accordingly done, Ballankeel [sic] putting his nose against the gold lining, wetting his lips, and then gallantly raising his head to acknowledge the applause of the multitude.—Daily Graphic
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. Contested at 1½ miles on Wednesday (day three) by six three-year-old fillies, the first Kentucky Oaks was won by Vinaigrette, who was erroneously listed as being a five-year-old in the New York Herald-Tribune’s race summary! Time, 2:39¾.
The Jockey Club designed one more race with another English stakes in mind, the St. Leger; this was the Clark Stake (today’s Clark Handicap), a two-miler for three-year-olds that was held on closing day, Saturday, with Voltigeur prevailing in a time of 3:50¼ over 11 other starters.
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. No track has such new and perfectly planned stables,” 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. We are still compelled to stand today, 138 years later, to witness this sport, from its magnificent triumphs to its most devastating defeats—forgoing our seats as thousands did on opening day at this Louisville track that was once known as Driving Park.