The Kentucky Derby: A Two Minute Race through Victorian History

Engraving of 1883 Kentucky Derby winning horse, Leonatus. / Source: Churchill Downs, Inc. & Kinetic Corporation.

Engraving of 1883 Kentucky Derby winning horse, Leonatus. / Source: Churchill Downs, Inc.

I’m a hat lady residing in the south, so obviously the Kentucky Derby is a rather grand affair at my house. Every first Saturday of May, my family arranges an intimate Kentucky Derby Tea around the living room television. Donning pearls and plumed fascinators, we sip Darjeeling and savor scones during the pre-race coverage. The parade of millinery masterpieces evokes oohs and aahs from our lips. And the tales of underdog racehorses and devoted trainers makes us dream of red roses, Triple Crown wins, and the fruition of our own “impossible” endeavors.

Kentucky Derby Inspired Hat. / Source: Cambria Grace Photography

Kentucky Derby Inspired Hat. / Source: Cambria Grace Photography

This Derby Day Tea has become a treasured tradition in my family. Just as the “most exciting two minutes in sports” has become a tradition of the old Kentucky home . . . one that can be traced back to the Victorian Era.

To the Starting Gate . . .

The Kentucky Derby was created by a Victorian gentleman with an illustrious name and a familial tie to American history books. This gent was one Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr.—the grandson of William Clark, of the explorer duo Lewis and Clark.

Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. (1846-1899). / Source:

Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. (1846-1899). / Source:

Colonel Clark was inspired to create the Kentucky Derby whilst traveling abroad in 1872. After attending England’s prestigious Epsom Derby and cavorting with the French Jockey Club, he returned home with a firm determination and clear vision to host a fantastic horse racing event on American soil. 

And They’re Off . . .

In 1874 Colonel Clark acquired land for a racetrack—a gift from his uncles John and Henry Churchill—and then proceeded to form the Louisville Jockey Club. Together the band of local racing enthusiasts, led by the Colonel, raised the necessary funds to build a permanent racetrack.

On May 17th, 1875, the track opened its gates for the very first Kentucky Derby race! A Chestnut Colt named Aristides raced 1.5 miles to win, in a field of fifteen horses, before a cheering crowd of 10,000 spectators.

Coming Around the Turn . . .

As time galloped round the final turn of the 19th century, two integral gems would be added to Colonel Clark’s prized racetrack. At the 1883 Kentucky Derby, won by thoroughbred Leonatus, the racetrack received its famous moniker, Churchill Downs. The name was chosen to honor the colonel’s generous uncles, John and Henry Churchill.

1883 Derby Winner, Leonatus. Engraving of Leonatus circa 1887, taken from the book “The Breeds of Live Stock, and The Principles of Heredity” by James Harvey Sanders (1832-1899).

Engraving of 1883 Derby Winner Leonatus, c. 1887, from “The Breeds of Live Stock, and The Principles of Heredity” by James Harvey Sanders (1832-1899). / Source: Wikipedia

The second gem was added almost a decade later. In 1894, a 285-foot grandstand was constructed to accommodate the growing number of race fans. A 24-year-old draftsman named Joseph Dominic Baldez was asked to draw the blueprints. Originally his plans lacked the iconic spires atop Churchill Downs, but as Baldez tweaked his design, he felt the roof-line needed an eye-catching feature.

Twin Spires of Churchill Downs. Source /

Twin Spires of Churchill Downs. / Source:

Described as towers in the original drawing, the hexagonal spires Baldez added exemplify late 19th century architecture, in which symmetry took precedence over function. The now legendary Twin Spires first greeted Derby spectators on May 6, 1895.

And the winner is . . .

Since that first race in 1875, the run for the roses has taken place every May without fail. And every May, without fail, the Kentucky Derby has provided this 21st Century Victorian Lady with an opportunity to hold family close and experience a winner’s circle moment in an echo of 19th century splendor. 

Do you have fond memories of watching the Kentucky Derby? Let’s chat below! And if you’re looking for more equestrian fun, I’d love for you to check out my novella, The Best Man in Brookside in The California Gold Rush Romance Collection, which includes an informal horse race!

The Best Man in Brookside

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