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The Kentucky Derby

How the Run for the Roses Became America’s Premier Sporting Event

James C. Nicholson

Publication Year: 2012

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.

Published by: The University Press of Kentucky

Front Cover

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Title Page

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Copyright Page

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pp. vii


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pp. ix-xii

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pp. xiii-xviii

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...

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pp. xix-xx

In the interest of full disclosure, I feel compelled to mention that I am a Thoroughbred racing enthusiast and a supporter of the Thoroughbred industry. I do this to alert the reader to a potential for bias, and to...

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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...

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Chapter 1. Early Struggles and Foundations for Success: 1875-1910

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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,” the Louisville Courier-Journal boldly predicted on May 17, 1875.1 That afternoon ten thousand...

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Chapter 2. The "Southern" Path to National Prominence: 1910-1930

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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...

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Chapter 3. Conflict at the Derby in the Great Depression: 1930-1940

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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...

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Chapter 4. An American Institution: 1940-1960

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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...

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Chapter 5. A Stage for Social Protest and a Site of National Healing: 1960-1980

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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...

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Chapter 6. Globalization and the American Dream: 1980-2010

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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...

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pp. 221-224

Any acknowledgment of the many people who helped make this book possible must begin with Joanne Pope Melish, who inspired and encouraged me to pursue the study of history and has served as an advisor, mentor, sounding board, and editor. Without her support and belief...


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pp. 225-248

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 249-260


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pp. 261-274

E-ISBN-13: 9780813135779
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813135762

Publication Year: 2012