There is no horse race more iconic in the United States than the Kentucky Derby. A race that has been contested every year without a miss since 1875.
Held at Churchill Downs, the prestigious race is the first leg of the Triple Crown and is often considered to be the one race that everyone involved in the sport would like to Win.
But where did the Kentucky Derby get its famous moniker? The Kentucky part is obvious; Churchill Downs is located in Louisville, Kentucky.
But what about the Derby aspect of the name?
The Kentucky Derby is actually based on, and named for a famous race in England called the Epsom Derby and the story behind the name of England’s Derby is equal parts interesting and amusing.
In 1779, a group of sportsmen had gathered to celebrate a successful first running of the Oaks, a 1 ½-mile race for 3-year-old fillies, contested at Epsom Downs.
Among the attendees was the 12th Earl of Derby, who originally conceived the idea of the Oaks and named it after his Oaks Park estate.
Another guest was Sir Charles Bunbury, described as one of racing’s great administrators by John Carter in his book “The History of Horse Racing: First Past the Post.” Carter further notes that “during the celebration after the first Oaks, the Earl, whose horse had been Victorious in the race, was inspired by conversations with Sir Charles Bunbury, to introduce an additional race.”
Their new race would be for 3-year-old colts, and it was soon determined that one of the two men would lend his name to the race, with a flip of a coin to decide the Winner.
Thus, on the whim of a coin toss, the new race became known as the Derby.
Since then, the term Derby has been applied to many prestigious races for 3-year-old colts. The Kentucky Derby was one of the earliest races to borrow the name, and has since been followed by races like the Santa Anita Derby, Florida Derby, Arkansas Derby, and so on.
But just think — had that coin flip nearly 240 years ago gone the other way, we would be eagerly anticipating the 147th running of the Kentucky Bunbury instead of the Kentucky Derby!
Doesn’t have quite the same cachet.