The Kentucky Derby is the most well-known horse race in America and, arguably, the world. But there are countless fascinating facts about the famous race that most people don’t know. Here are five of the most interesting, in no particular order:
Black jockeys dominated the early years of the Kentucky Derby: In fact, 15 of the first 28 Derbies were won by African American jockeys. Not only that, but the majority of riders and trainers in the post-Civil War period were black. Oliver Lewis, winner of the inaugural Run for the Roses in 1875, was one of the 15 blacks who won America’s premier horse race between 1875 and 1902.
By 1904, black jockeys had been banned from most major US horse racing venues, including Churchill Downs. There were no African American participants from 1921 until 2000, when Marlon St. Julien rode Curule to a 7th-place finish.
The Kentucky Derby was a pioneer in steroid and PED testing: Today, screening for the use of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) is commonplace throughout the sporting world. But the Derby has been testing horses for PEDs for decades. In fact, 1968 winner Dancer’s Image was disqualified into last place after testing positive for phenylbutazone in a post-race urinalysis.
The Kentucky Derby made Hunter S. Thompson famous: The godfather of “gonzo journalism” was virtually unknown before he published his seminal sports article masterpiece “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” as a reflection on the goings-on at and around the 1970 race. The article, which first appeared in the now-defunct Scanlan’s Monthly in June of that year, marked the birth of “gonzo journalism,” which eschews objectivity and involves the reporter directly in the story he or she is covering.
Accompanied by illustrations by longtime collaborator Ralph Steadman, the article focuses less on the actual race and more on the ostentatious celebrations surrounding it. The drunken and debauched infield parties and other social scenes are described in lurid detail and the piece oozes satire. Thompson himself described writing it as akin to “falling down an elevator shaft and landing in a pool of mermaids.”
Richard Nixon is the only sitting US president to ever attend a Kentucky Derby: As prestigious as the annual Run for the Roses has been for generations, only one current American president has ever attended the nation’s most famous horse race. Nixon, who first took in the race while on the campaign trail in 1968, returned the following year after winning the presidency. Also in attendance that year were future Republican presidents Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan.
A horse with 91:1 odds once won the Kentucky Derby: If you attended the 1913 Derby and placed a $100 bet on Donerail to win, your friends may have called you crazy. After all, the unremarkable horse’s odds were listed at a very distant 91:1. But not only did Donerail win the ’13 race, he did so in track record time. And your $100 bet would have paid a princely $91,000 — enough to buy 10 average houses with enough left over for a fleet of 50 those newfangled horseless carriages sputtering around town.