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The Kentucky Derby

The Kentucky Derby: How the Run for the Roses Became America's Premier Sporting Event

James C. Nicholson
Foreword by Chris McCarron
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 296
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  • Book Info
    The Kentucky Derby
    Book Description:

    Each year on the first Saturday in May, the world turns its attention to the twin spires of Churchill Downs for the high-stakes excitement of the "greatest two minutes in sports," the Kentucky Derby. No American sporting event can claim the history, tradition, or pageantry that the Kentucky Derby holds. For more than 130 years, spectators have been fascinated by the magnificent horses that run the Louisville track. Thoroughbreds such as Secretariat and Barbaro have earned instant international fame, along with jockeys such as Isaac Murphy, Ron Turcotte, and Calvin Borel. The Kentucky Derby: How the Run for the Roses Became America's Premier Sporting Event calls this great tradition to post and illuminates its history and culture.

    Rising from its humble beginnings as an American variation of England's Epsom Derby, the Kentucky Derby became a centerpiece of American sports and the racing industry, confirming Kentucky's status as the Horse Capital of the World. James C. Nicholson argues that the Derby, at its essence, is a celebration of a place, existing as a connection between Kentucky's mythic past and modern society. The Derby is more than just a horse race -- it is an experience enhanced by familiar traditions, icons, and images that help Derby fans to understand Kentucky and define themselves as Americans. Today the Kentucky Derby continues to attract international attention from royalty, celebrities, racing fans, and those who simply enjoy an icy mint julep, a fabulous hat, and a wager on who will make it to the winner's circle.

    Nicholson provides an intriguing and thorough history of the Kentucky Derby, examining the tradition, spectacle, culture, and evolution of the Kentucky Derby -- the brightest jewel of the Triple Crown.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-3577-9
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Foreword
    (pp. xiii-xviii)
    Chris McCarron

    The sport of horse racing has provided me with the opportunity to journey all around the world. During my travels as a professional jockey in a career that lasted nearly four decades, I was often conspicuous because of my size, my build, and the riding crop that stuck out of the “tack” bag that I carried onto airplanes. Upon learning that I rode Thoroughbreds for a living, people I met would invariably ask me if I had ever ridden in the Kentucky Derby. Their next question would be, “Have you ever won it?”

    The Kentucky Derby is, without question, the...

  5. Preface
    (pp. xix-xx)
  6. Introduction: The Unique Identity of Kentucky and Its Derby
    (pp. 1-8)

    What is it about the Kentucky Derby? Why does it thrill people who will not see another horse race all year, who otherwise pay no attention to an anachronistic sport whose heyday appears to be long past? Each year a quarter million people file into Churchill Downs in Louisville on Derby weekend, and hundreds of thousands more attend festivities around the city in the two weeks leading up to the big race. The Kentucky Derby is not the fastest, longest, or most monetarily valuable horse race in the United States. It was not the first race—or even the first...

  7. 1 Early Struggles and Foundations for Success: 1875–1910
    (pp. 9-46)

    “Today will be historic in Kentucky annals as the first ‘Derby Day’ of what promises to be a long series of annual turf festivities of which we confidently expect our grandchildren, a hundred years hence, to celebrate in glorious rejoicings,” theLouisville Courier-Journalboldly predicted on May 17, 1875.¹ That afternoon ten thousand curious and enthusiastic spectators filled the brand-new Louisville Jockey Club and Driving Park and witnessed history under a cloudless sky. Fashionable ladies and gentlemen from all parts of America were seated in the grandstand, and the clubhouse veranda was dotted with parasols, rocking chairs, and black waiters...

  8. 2 The “Southern” Path to National Prominence: 1910–1930
    (pp. 47-82)

    On the heels of the reintroduction of the pari-mutuel machines in 1908, Matt Winn again took a page from the book of M. L. Clark and returned the free infield policy to Churchill Downs on Derby Day in 1910. It was a fitting start to what would be the most important two decades of growth in the Derby’s history. The “free field” had been an important part of the Derby’s charm and identity in the early years but had been discontinued by the turn of the century in a shortsighted attempt to increase revenue. In the early years, the infield...

  9. 3 Conflict at the Derby in the Great Depression: 1930–1940
    (pp. 83-112)

    During the 1930s, the Derby continued to draw patrons to Louisville from across the country. While it retained its place among the most popular festivals on the American sports calendar, the Derby was not immune to the changing cultural conditions brought about by the Great Depression. Once celebrated as a cheerful place where the masses and society swells interacted amicably, Churchill Downs became a tense environment increasingly marred by conflicts between guards and patrons. But even in the worst economic environment in the nation’s history, both the rich and the regular folk continued to flock to the famous racetrack on...

  10. 4 An American Institution: 1940–1960
    (pp. 113-142)

    On an unseasonably cool May 4, 1940, Gallahadion caught previously unbeaten and odds-on favorite Bimelech in the homestretch to win the Derby at odds of more than 35-1 in one of the great upsets of Derby history. Gallahadion was owned by Ethel Mars, the widow of the founder of Mars Candies who raced under the name Milky Way Stables. The bedridden Mars, who netted the winner’s share of the largest purse in Derby history, called it “the happiest day of her life.”¹ The stable had entered at least one horse in every Derby since 1935 with lackluster results.² Among Milky...

  11. 5 A Stage for Social Protest and a Site of National Healing: 1960–1980
    (pp. 143-176)

    By the 1960s the Derby’s status as an important piece of Americana, combined with the glut of media attention focused on Louisville during the first week of May each year, had transformed the event into a national stage. As baby boomers came of age and challenged the conventional wisdom of their parents’ generation, many of the American cultural and social battles of the 1960s and 1970s would be waged on that stage, including the clash between youth and the “establishment,” and the struggle for black civil rights.

    The first of these conflicts to appear at Churchill Downs accompanied the young...

  12. 6 Globalization and the American Dream: 1980–2010
    (pp. 177-220)

    The first half of the 1980s were extraordinary times in Kentucky: the Bluegrass State experienced unprecedented growth in the horse industry, a high-profile couple occupied the governor’s mansion, and opulence and excess characterized the state’s elite circles. The national profile of the Kentucky Derby continued to rise, the beneficiary of the glamour that was increasingly connected with the state and its horse industry during these boom times in the Bluegrass. By the turn of the century the Derby would be an annual goal for horse owners around the world in an increasingly global Thoroughbred industry. American media focused on tales...

  13. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 221-224)
  14. Notes
    (pp. 225-248)
  15. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 249-260)
  16. Index
    (pp. 261-276)