Kentucky Derby at 150 is bucket-list Americana. But can it outrun racing’s woes?

Republished from Kentucky Lantern

To paraphrase a wiseguy I once knew, this Saturday’s Kentucky Derby — the 150th edition of the famed horse race — is made history. From its first running in 1875 as the feature race at a just opened Churchill Downs in Louisville to its current place atop a sports and culture pinnacle, its narrative has been a burgoo of glory and hype, continuity and change.    

Oliver Lewis (Kentucky Commission on Human Rights)

Start with the beginning and the backstory. Modeled after England’s Epsom Derby, the first Kentucky Derby was won in an upset by a chestnut colt named Aristides, who was owned by gambler H. Price McGrath and bred on his stud farm near Lexington, and trained and ridden by two African American horsemen from the Bluegrass, Ansel Williamson and Oliver Lewis. It was a 1 ½ mile race (shortened to 1 ¼ miles in 1896) for three-year olds and 15 of them ran. Contemporary accounts put the crowd as large — 10,000 estimated — the weather fair and the atmosphere festive. 

The race and its track, which was developed by Meriwether Lewis Clark, grandson of William Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition, soon gained a foothold in a booming industry.

It was the Gilded Age of the late 1800s — a time of unbridled opportunity and crass exploitation when robber barons and labor strikes, railroads and skyscrapers, immigrant millions, diamond-studded dinners and corrupt politics stirred the land — and horse racing was America’s national sport. Racetracks numbered more than 300 and drew large crowds, from sweatshop workers to nouveau aristocrats. On the same day in 1872, for example, 40,000 people filled Monmouth Park in New Jersey, while just 300 watched a professional baseball game at a Brooklyn field. And in 1887, Congress adjourned for a match race at Pimlico in Baltimore. 

The bubble burst in the early 1900s with the rise of the Progressive Movement and its puritanical social agenda. Gambling on horses (and all else) was frowned on and legislated against and racing declined dramatically. By 1908, only 25 tracks were operating in the country. The pendulum swung after World War I as anti-gambling fervor cooled. Tracks reopened and pari-mutuel betting was widespread. Racing became Hollywood’s “sport of kings” and its stands were full and its stars — Man o’War, War Admiral, Seabiscuit, Whirlaway, Citation and others  —  were household names. 

An 1864 painting by Edward Troye depicts Asteroid with his trainer Ansel Williamson and his jockey Edward Brown at Woodburn Stud in Woodford County. (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts)

Amid those national tides, the Derby and Churchill Downs struggled, at least for a while. A brouhaha over bookmakers in 1886 led to a de facto boycott of the race by Eastern horse owners that lasted some 25 years. The Derby lost prominence and Churchill floundered under financial difficulties. In 1902, the track, which had never been profitable, faced closure and was bought by a partnership formed by Matt Winn, a Louisville salesman and merchant tailor. 

A comeback began when Winn’s group took over and soon accelerated. Winn, who made a Time magazine cover in 1937, was named president of Churchill in 1938. An industry celebrity and gifted promoter, he cultivated and wined and dined the national media, and with their help and hype made the Derby bucket-list Americana. It became the race horsemen — owners, trainers, jockeys, grooms and hot walkers — wanted to win and the public was fascinated by and wanted to attend. 

Matt Winn with racing fans. (Kentucky Derby Museum)

The momentum and mystique Winn created has continued, largely unabated, since his death in 1949. The New York Times called him “a prophet (who) preached the gospel of racing through the United States. . . . He alone made it (the Derby) what it is today.” For most of the mid and late 1900s, that meant, more than anything, embracing and sustaining a status quo. As Tom Meeker, the track’s president from 1984 to 2006, put it, Churchill’s business was to “tweak the Derby at the margins but leave the main canvas alone.”  

That approach has shifted markedly in recent decades. Yes, the race itself — 1 ¼ miles under the iconic 1895 twin spires — remains the same. But much of its surrounding milieu has changed. What was a sprawling labyrinth of an urban track — with old brick walkways, beadboard betting windows, hidden corridors, trough urinals in men’s rooms and more— has been morphing into a modern (albeit still sprawling) racing and entertainment facility. 

Behind the transformation is Churchill Downs Inc., the track’s corporate parent. Formed in 1950,  CDI has become a publicly-traded, nationally leading racing, online wagering and gaming company, with some 27 casinos and racing properties across 14 states. Over the past two plus decades, the company has spent more than $450 million on brick-and-mortar capital projects, including most recently a three-year, $335 million one that’s added new seating and hospitality areas and was capped by a $200 million redesigned paddock that opened last week.

Man O’ War with his groom Will Harbut was a national celebrity when this photograph was taken on June 15, 1934 by Lafayette Studios. (University of Kentucky Libraries Special Collections Research Center)

Amid these projects, CDI has prospered, with record net revenue of $2.5 billion last year, up 36% from 2022. Numbers for the Derby last year showed a record $288.7 million wagered from all sources on Derby day, up 5% from 2022’s record. Attendance of 150,335 was up 2% from 2022 (the record of 170,513 was set in 2015). The race attracted 14.8 million viewers on NBC, down from 16 million in 2022. 

These bottom lines should assure the Derby and its brand a rosy future. But there’s an elephant — American Thoroughbred racing — in the room.

Back to the past. Even with the Derby at the forefront, racing’s glory days didn’t last. The landscape changed. By the 1960s, the sport and industry began a decline that’s accelerated over the subsequent decades. With isolated exceptions —  most notably Secretariat in the 1970s — racing has receded in the national consciousness. The Derby aside, it’s on few people’s radar anymore. Its default spot on an ESPN app, for instance, is on a list with lacrosse, cricket, badminton, kabaddi and a host of “more sports.” 

Trainer Bob Baffert raises the trophy after winning the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby in 2021. Medina Spirit was later disqualified after failing a drug test. Baffert remains banned from Churchill Downs. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Some reasons for racing’s decline — an aging and shrinking fan base; the rise and popularity of the NBA and NFL, marginal TV coverage and competition from state lotteries, casino gambling and sports betting —  have been societal and demographic and arguably out of the industry’s direct control. 

But others have been primarily self-inflicted and much more damaging. Over the past decade alone, two of them — drug scandals and on-track horse deaths — have become recurring national news. The drug scandals have involved several prominent trainers and led to suspensions and federal indictments. And the deaths have forced leading tracks, including Churchill and Santa Anita Park in California, to close for investigations of surfaces and training practices. 

As part of all this, racing’s field sizes have shrunk and major tracks, including Hollywood Park in Los Angeles and Arlington Park in Chicago, have shut down. The industry’s main attempt to address its decline has been the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority (HISA), which aims to develop and implement national, uniform safety, anti-doping and medication rules. It took effect last year.

As American racing’s city-on-a-hill, the Derby had avoided the industry’s woes. But in 2021, that changed when Medina Spirit, who finished first in the Derby, was disqualified after failing a post-race drug test. A protracted and very public legal battle involving the horse’s high-profile trainer, Bob Baffert, owner Amr Zedan and Churchill followed. The track prevailed and Baffert was banned from Churchill for what is now a third year.

The incident is mostly over. But it took a toll. It stripped the Derby, in year 150, of some of its curated transcendence and brought it closer to a troubled industry’s mean. And it raised the question of how big — and destructive — its elephant in the room might become.

Racing humor from a Kentucky post card collection. (University of Kentucky Libraries Special Collections Research Center)


Kentucky Lantern is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kentucky Lantern maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Jamie Lucke for questions: Follow Kentucky Lantern on Facebook and Twitter. Kentucky Lantern stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Donate to Kentucky Lantern here.