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Why Kentucky, Thoroughbred Horses, and Derby?

By Gerry Fischer

 The history of Kentucky and its connection to horses, date from before Kentucky became a state, when it was Kentucky County Virginia. The Transylvania land company, met for its first convention at Fort Boonesborough, May 23rd 1775 shortly after news of the battles of Lexington and Concord. At that convention two of the nine laws passed were a fish and game law and a horse breeding law. Since most of the game had been shot away within the vicinity of the fort’s walls, it was passed that no hunting would be allowed within one mile of the fort, and that it was the duty of the people to breed the very best horses, because human life depended on fast and strong horses for agriculture, travel, communication and defense. Other laws had to do with swearing and missing church on sabbath, officers, paying debts and other things.

 Horses in those days were more important than they are today and more important than the autos of today. The horse was the machine that plowed the ground, they were the main means of transportation, other than walking. They were also used to lift and erect logs, and to move them from the forest to the field where the cabin or fort would be built. Not only that but they needed to be swift to carry messages between the forts and stations in case of Indian attack. From the very beginning of our state, care was paid to match the right stallion with the best mare in order to gain the best colts.

 It didn’t take long, for Kentucky horses to be recognized for their conformity and their varied genetic ability, particularly speed. They were like the “Swiss Army Knife,” of horses, multi-talented and strong. Of course, they became the targets of Native Americans who attacked the settlements to steal the settler’s horses. Of course, in the Indian’s eyes, the settlers deserved it for stealing their land. Each side had a strong argument against the other.

 Soon every settlement turned into a town, and every town had its race track. Even on the Moorman farm there was a nearby racetrack. Flaherty had one, and they dotted the landscape. Sometimes these municipal tracks were associated with Fairgrounds. In the old days there was no football baseball, basketball, or soccer. Sporting events were like a pioneer version of the Olympics. In the Olympic games, there was wrestling, relay races, marathons, javelin or spear throwing, discus, and shotput. These were all necessary skills needed by warriors. In the settlement towns, these sports were foot races, wrestling, axe, knife, and rock throwing, shooting contests or turkey shoots, and horse races, all skills the people on the frontier needed for survival. A fast horse could save your life. The remnants of these sporting events can be found even today at state and county fairs. Nowadays the horse races are remembered by the Merry Go Round, and throwing skills are baseballs thrown at milk bottles, ring toss whack-a-Mole, dart throwing at balloons, or shooting galleries.

One day in 1872, Col. Merriweather R. Lewis, Grandson of William Clark, visited England and attended the Epsom Darby, a horse race with a large attendance of pretty ladies and dapper gentlemen in high fashion. Enjoying the beautiful horses and a day of racing fun, he came back to the states desiring to bring such an event to Kentucky. His Uncles John and Henry Churchill donated some land to him. He then got together several race horse enthusiasts, formed the Louisville Jockey Club, and they sponsored the first Kentucky Derby May 17th, 1875 at what became known as Churchill Downs, in honor of John and Henry Churchill.

 The first Derby was a mile and one-half long, and 15 thoroughbred horses vied for first place. Ten thousand people attended and Aristides came in first. The total purse was $3,050.00, some $70,483.28 in today’s money. Aristides collected $2, 850.00 for first place and Volcano received $200.00 for second place. The Kentucky Derby has roots almost to the exact day it became a law to develop the best horses in Kentucky, May 23rd, 1775 to May 17th, 1875. What a tradition. Kentucky has the oldest continual horse race in the United States. Woohoo!