The Kentucky Derby has been run since 1875, when Aristides won. Churchill Downs founder Colonel M. Lewis Clark, grandson of William Clark (of the Lewis and Clark expedition) patterned it after the Epson Derby in England. It is the oldest uninterrupted sporting event in the world. Since 1896, it has been contested at a distance of 10 furlongs, 1 1/4 miles. Before that, it was run at 12 furlongs, 1 1/2 miles. About 150,000 people attend each year, thousands crowding into the infield, where horses can barely be glimpsed, but the party rages on. Many more watch broadcasts of the internationally televised event.
Part of what makes the Derby unique is that these young horses have generally never run so far in their lives. The exceptions are horses who have run races in other countries.
The Derby attracts the best 3-year-olds from around the world. The crowd watches from the shade of their Derby hats, sipping their mint juleps and crying at the singing of "My Old Kentucky Home," the state song, during the post parade. Minutes later, the winner is draped in a blanket of red roses and the horse's name is written on a wall of the racetrack.
Two weeks after the Kentucky Derby, up to 14 horses can run in the 1 3/16 mile Preakness Stakes at Pimlico racetrack in Baltimore, Maryland. Three weeks later, horses run in the 1 1/2 mile Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park in Elmont, New York. This is commonly the longest distance any horse will run on an American track.
Since Sir Barton became the first Triple Crown winner in 1919, only 11 horses have become Triple Crown champions. The last was in 1978, when Affirmed battled off Alydar in all three races. For the first time since the Triple Crown's beginnings, there is no living Triple Crown winner. The last, Seattle Slew, died in 2002. He became the only horse to win the Triple Crown without being defeated in a previous race in 1977.
It has been more than 25 years since there has been a Triple Crown winner, the longest break in horse racing history, and racing needs a new hero. The longest previous gap was the 25 years between Citation in 1948 and Secretariat in 1973. Each year, racing fans have one hope above any other, that they will be witness to the coming of the next great horse, the next Triple Crown winner.