Horse Racing isn’t just for the Brits! by Sharon Lathan

Horse Racing isn’t just for the Brits! by Sharon Lathan

As many of you probably know, in late 2013 I moved from California to Kentucky. BIG change! We absolutely love Kentucky, and as a born and bred Southern girl (Mississippi), I feel as if I have come home. No offense to California! LOL! Yet despite my ancestry, living on the west coast since a very small toddler overwhelmed my genetics, so adjusting to and comprehending all the aspects of Southern life have taken a while. I doubt I’ll ever completely shake off the Valley Girl demeanor or master a drawl that can compete with my father, but little by little I am fitting in.

One important step is grasping onto the extreme, nay VITAL importance of Derby.

You see, to folks in Kentucky, this time of year everything revolves around the Kentucky Derby. In fact it is so entrenched into the culture and genetic code that all one has to say is “Derby” to instantly comprehend the entire meaning! Thanks to my two dear friends Stephanie and Juliet, I was educated last year. Then, of course being me, I did more research! I wrote a series of posts on my website last year, and have decided to share some of the history here on Austen Authors.


The Beginning of Thoroughbred Racing in England~

In its oldest forms, the sport was enjoyed by Egyptians, Syrians and Ancient Greeks. But it was the Romans who brought the idea to our shores. Although we already had a profound love for the animals, and used them for transportation and warfare, it wasn’t until around 200 AD that soldiers organised the first competitions… When James I set eyes on the village of Newmarket in 1605, he knew it was destined for equestrian greatness. Since then, it’s been known as the home of horseracing in England. And a little over 100 years later, Queen Anne made a similar discovery when riding on the heaths near Ascot.  –THE HISTORY OF GREAT BRITISH RACING  link

In 1750 horse racing’s elite met at Newmarket to form the Jockey Club to oversee and control English horse racing. The Jockey Club wrote a comprehensive set of rules for horse racing and sanctioned racecourses…  Steps were also taken to regulate the breeding of race horses and James Weatherby, an accountant of the Jockey Club, was assigned the task to trace the pedigree and compile the family history of all race horses in England…  Thoroughbred horses are so inbred that the pedigree of every horse can be traced back to one of three stallions, Byerley Turk (1680-1696), Darley Arabian (1700-1733) and the Godolphin Arabian (1724-1753), and these are known as the “Foundation sires”.  From the early 1800s the only horses that could be called “Thoroughbreds” and allowed to race professionally were those listed in the General Stud Book.  –EQUINE WORLD UK  link


The Beginning of Thoroughbred Racing in the US~

Racing of horses in the US dates to 1665 in New York. In 1798 English thoroughbred racing legend Diomed was imported to Virginia. Having failed as a stud in England, and with his best days thought to be behind him, the 21-year-old stallion adapted happily to American life, siring so many children that he is considered the father of American Thoroughbreds. Throughout the early to mid-1800s westward-moving settlers establish the sport in Illinois, Missouri, Texas, Louisiana, and even California. Thoroughbreds, as well as other breeds of horses, raced for entertainment all across the expanding country. Alas, racing as a sport suffered during the Civil War when thoroughbred breeding centers were destroyed and horses are pushed into military service.

After the war, racing enthusiasts revived the sport, and for the first time in its nearly 200 year history did so in an organized, nationwide manner akin to the English standards. A big help was the introduction of the American Stud Book in 1868, which became the official breed registry for American Thoroughbreds. Fine race tracks were built, local Jockey Clubs were established, and rules of the sport were laid. However, corruption was prevalent at many racetracks, in large part because there was no official, national governing body. This was addressed in 1894, when leading figures within the sport formed the American Jockey Club, the organization based on the British Jockey Club.

On June 19, 1867 the first annual Belmont Stakes was run at Jerome Park, New York. (In 1890 organizers moved the race to Morris Park, then in 1906 to Belmont Park.) On October 25, 1870 the Maryland Jockey Club staged its inaugural meeting at Pimlico Racecourse, just outside of Baltimore, and two-days later ran its first race. The winner was a huge colt named Preakness, of whom the track is now named to honor.



The Kentucky Derby~

In 1872 Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr. – grandson of William Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition, and grand-nephew of George Rogers Clark who founded Louisville – traveled to England to attend the Derby Stakes, the most prestigious and richest race ran annually since 1780 at Epsom Downs in Surrey. Upon returning home to Kentucky, Clark organized the Louisville Jockey Club, modeling England’s Jockey Club, for the purpose of raising money to build quality racing facilities just outside of the city. The track was named Churchill Downs for John and Henry Churchill who provided the land for the racetrack. The first Kentucky Derby horserace was held at Churchill Downs on May 17 in 1875, and a race has run every year without fail.

Churchill Downs was built in 1875. A few upgrades were added, most notably the twin spire grandstand in 1895, and refurbishing has been done, but for the most part the track and building are unchanged. In 1986 it was declared a National Historic Landmark. The seating capacity is 120,000, and on Derby day up to 150,000 people fill the stands to literally standing-room only! In addition to the track, grandstand, and stables, the Kentucky Derby Museum is also housed on site. It contains two-stories of exhibits, traces every horse who has ever won the Derby, has a 360 degree theater, and is the burial site of six past Derby winners. Throughout the year, in three separate “meets” there are many races run at Churchill Downs. Each year is kicked off with the spring meet beginning one week before the Derby in May, and that lasts through July. A second meet is in the fall from October through the Thanksgiving weekend. In 2013 a third meet was added in the month of September.

In short time the Derby became the premiere thoroughbred horse race in the US, in part due to the high standards to compete, but also due to it simply being the first of the season. Thoroughbred owners began sending their successful Derby horses to compete a few weeks later in the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore, followed by the Belmont Stakes. These three races offered the largest purses, so were naturally desirable, but also the toughest and most costly to enter. (more on that in a bit)

In 1919 Sir Barton became the first horse to win all three races. At this point it was a WOW moment, but it is important to note that the three races were, and still are, independently controlled franchises. In 1930, when Gallant Fox became the second horse to win all three races, sportswriter Charles Hatton whimsically created the phrase “Triple Crown”. Two years later the desire to lay claim to the term “Triple Crown” was so great that the three races were set to occur on specific days in spring so as to never overlap. The Derby was set for the first Saturday in May, launching the three-race cycle.

Yet, as I noted before, each race is independent. Owners who wish to enter their thoroughbred into all three races may do so, of course, but it is not required. Last year the sour-grapes owner of California Chrome threw an unseemly hissy-fit when Tonalist won the Belmont Stakes (Tonalist did not run in the prior races) which in his opinion “robbed” California Chrome of the Triple Crown. The result was lots of online chatter and blogs on the subject of the “fairness” in a horse tired from two grueling races being pitted against a fresh horse. Thankfully most people were sensible enough to comprehend the traditions and rules of the game! Winning the Triple Crown was never the intention of the three top races, and even once established as an allowable possibility, it is a rarity. Only 11 horses have managed the task, the first in 1919 and the last in 1978. Winning the Triple Crown is special because it is difficult and because it can only be done by an extraordinary thoroughbred.


The Kentucky Derby is a Grade I stakes race (pertains to the high level requirements and purse size) for three-year-old thoroughbred colts and geldings. Fillies can run in the race, but they have to work much harder to compete with the male horses. The winner receives a 14-carat gold trophy, a garland of 564 red roses sewn into a satin blanket, and an estimated $1.24 million purse. A total of $400,000 will be awarded to the runner-up, $200,000 to third, $100,000 to fourth and $60,000 to fifth.

Qualifications for running in the Derby are strict. These are just the basics:
1. Equines must be proven to be a direct descendant of three stallions – Darley Arabian, Godolphin Arabian, or Byerly Turk – from the General Stud Book of England, bred back in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.
2. All horses must be 3-year-old thoroughbreds leveled at grade 1, at the top of their form with sufficient group 1 winnings in past performances to ensure they are fit for the race’s level.
3. Weight allocation: 126 lb (57.2 kg) for colts and geldings and 121 lb (54.9 kg) for fillies.
4. Fees to enter the Derby include a $600 – $6000 nomination fee (depending on the date of application), and another $50,000 total before race day.

The Derby race is 1 ¼ miles (2 km) long, and is known as the “most exciting two minutes in sports.” Only two horses in history – Secretariat in 1973 and Northern Dancer in 1964 – have come in under two minutes.

The Derby is frequently referred to as “The Run for the Roses” because of that lush blanket of 564 red roses awarded to the winner. In 1883 New York socialite E. Berry Wall presented roses to ladies at a post-Derby party that was attended by Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark. This gesture gave Clark the idea of making the race’s official flower a rose. In 1896 was the first recorded account of roses being draped on the Derby winner. By tradition, the Governor of Kentucky awards the garland and the trophy.

Believe it or not, I have only scratched the surface on horse racing history and the Kentucky Derby in particular. Nor did I mention The Oaks or touch on the multiple traditions and elaborate events that surround Derby season. It is intense, trust me! I’ll be sharing more on my blog over these next two weeks leading up to the Derby on May 2, so pop over from time to time. Today I have a companion post discussing the opening ceremonies of the Kentucky Derby Festival.


If curious to learn more from the serious websites, I added a couple of links above, and here are a 3 Kentucky links:
Kentucky Derby Official Website
Kentucky Oaks Official Webpage
Kentucky Derby Experiences

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[…] Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., the founder of the Kentucky Derby — click to read my post on Austen Authors for more on thoroughbred horse racing — modeled the race after European-style racing events like the Royal Ascot and Derby at Epsom […]


[…] Horse Racing isn’t just for the Brits! Sharon’s blog on Austen Authors […]

Sheila L. M.
Sheila L. M.
May 11, 2015 2:07 PM

I am not into horses or horse racing at all. But this was interesting, especially the rules about who can enter. My husband went a few times as he had clients from the area near Churchill Downs. The closest for me were the T-shirts he brought home for the kids and me. I have noticed the races in the newspaper and follow if there is any chance of a horse winning the “Triple Crown”.

April 27, 2015 1:56 PM

Thanks for sharing this enlightening post, Sharon. I love horseback riding but have never tried to ride one by myself. It’s my bucket list.

Linda A.
Linda A.
April 21, 2015 10:50 AM

I always enjoyed watching the Derby when I was growing up. There are so few horse “events” shown on television that a horse-crazy girl could watch that it was necessary to my happiness to watch it. I remember watching Affirmed beat Alydar for the Triple Crown in 1978. Now that was exciting!

Deborah Fortin
April 21, 2015 6:44 AM

I had been in Lexington Kentucky 30 years ago on Derby weekend with the equestrian team from our college. Our intercollegiate nationals were being held at Kentucky Horse Park that weekend. I was intrigued by all the fuss the hotel went through for the Derby. I understood a little about the history of the event, but now understand a great deal more thanks to the informative post. The direct lineage of thoroughbreds reminds me of the direct lineage needed for the nobility and by extension the monarchy.

April 20, 2015 5:10 PM

We always watch the Kentucky Derby and pick out a horse we can root for and hopefully be the winner. The Triple Crown is so exciting to watch!
Joan,Marion and Marilyn

Jennifer Redlarczyk
April 20, 2015 4:03 PM

My mom was born in Monticello and always talked about the Derby. One of my students goes down every year and makes a week of it. And I loved Seabiscuit along with many other movies. Even though I can appreciate the Derby, I would rather go to Kentucky and see the farm where my mom grew up and then off to Paducha and visit the quilt museum and attend the American Quilter’s Annual event. Just saying! Thanks for reminding me about my mom and what she loved so well. ~Jen Red~

Rose Fairbanks
Rose Fairbanks
April 20, 2015 1:15 PM

Wow, I had no idea it was so intense! I live in Virginia where there is still a horse race nearby (this weekend actually). I’ve never been but I envision myself in an Eliza Doolittle moment if I would go. And wouldn’t it be fun to have the fashion too?

Brenda Webb
Brenda Webb
April 20, 2015 11:48 AM

Fascinating bit of information! I agree with Jenni about the horses having to have come from those 3 horses in England! How odd is that! I thought if they could compete amongst the others, they could enter. Silly me.

Stephanie L
April 20, 2015 10:05 AM

I have always thought I would love to be a part of the hoopla simply to buy a fabulous hat. LOL Incredible history.

Jenni James
April 20, 2015 3:37 AM

Holy cow! I had no idea they were so strict in their qualifications to run the race. It’s funny that you HAVE TO be a direct lineage with horses from 17th-18th century. As if only those bloodlines were the fastest or something. It’s kind of silly, isn’t it? Thank you for such an informative post. Fascinating.

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