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The Kentucky Derby is a worldwide sports activities spectacle and, within the eyes of many, America’s definitive sporting custom. 

The occasion was cast, virtually extremely, by two of the good epic occasions in United States historical past: the triumph of the Lewis and Clark Expedition and the tragedy of the Civil Warfare.

The bluegrass seeds of the world’s most well-known horse race have been planted by an enchanting man with a uniquely American heritage.


His title is Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. 

He is the founding father of each the Kentucky Derby, which was has been run yearly since 1875, and the Louisville Jockey Membership, later generally known as Churchill Downs. 

Kentucky Derby founder Clark Jr.

Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. based the Kentucky Derby and Churchill Downs, which is called for his mom’s household. Clark Jr. was the grandson of famed Lewis and Clark Expedition chief William Clark.  (Churchill Downs Racetrack, Courtesy of Kentucky Derby Museum)

“Clark’s impression on the Kentucky Derby and on horse racing basically can’t be overstated,” Chris Goodlett, senior director of curatorial and schooling affairs on the Kentucky Derby Museum, advised Fox Information Digital.

“He was extraordinarily vital, to say the least.”

“Clark’s impression on the Kentucky Derby and on horse racing basically can’t be overstated.” — Chris Goodlett, Kentucky Derby Museum

If the title Meriwether Lewis Clark sounds acquainted, it ought to. 

The founding father of the Kentucky Derby is the grandson of one of many nice heroes of American historical past, famed explorer William Clark. 

He was named for Clark’s equally legendary associate, Meriwether Lewis. 

2018 Kentucky Derby

Justify (#7, in middle), ridden by jockey Mike Smith, crosses the end line to win the 144th working of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on Might 5, 2018, in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire by way of Getty Photographs)

The Lewis and Clark Expedition traversed the huge, rugged, unrecorded American inside from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean and again between 1804 and 1806. The journey made each males nationwide heroes.  

“The direct hyperlink to the Kentucky Derby comes via William Clark,” James J. Holmberg wrote for the Filson Historic Society in Louisville. 


“His love of horses was handed onto his son, Meriwether Lewis Clark.”

The elder Meriwether Lewis Clark raised dozens of horses and saved detailed information of them. Clark Jr. grew up in a tradition formed by dauntless pioneers and horsemen. 

Lewis & Clark expedition

Sacagawea guiding the Lewis and Clark expedition. The success of the Lewis and Clark expedition was aided by the Indian slave spouse of a French pioneer who was engaged to information the celebration. Drawing by Alfred Russell. (Getty Photographs)

The Kentucky Derby additionally sprang from the will of Kentucky’s horse-racing group to get better from the devastation of the Civil Warfare.

Clark was on the forefront of an effort that helped unite the nation via love of horses, sports activities, spectacle — and rowdy, old style good occasions.

Pioneer’s namesake

Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. was born on Jan. 27, 1846 in Jefferson County, Kentucky, to Meriwether Lewis and Abigail Prather (Churchill) Clark.

His household known as him Lutie.

His father, Clark Sr., was the oldest baby of William Clark, the Military officer, explorer and later governor of the Missouri Territory. Grandpa Clark died eight years earlier than Lutie was born. 

Horse Asteroid

Edward Troye, American, 1808-1874 (artist); “The Undefeated Asteroid,” 1864, oil on canvas. Ansel Williamson, a former slave, educated the well-known Asteroid and later educated Aristides, the primary winner of the Kentucky Derby. (Paul Mellon Assortment; Virginia Museum of High quality Arts, Richmond)

The bond shared by William Clark and Meriwether Lewis is obvious in probably the most intimate tribute possible: Clark named his firstborn son after his associate in exploration. 

Lewis by no means had youngsters. 


Clark Sr. served as a U.S. Military officer within the Mexican-American Warfare, then as a basic within the Accomplice military within the Civil Warfare. Clark Jr. was of navy age throughout the battle however his service, if any, seems unknown. 

Kentucky performed a novel position in America’s deadliest battle. It was a slave state, however by no means seceded from the Union. 

“The direct hyperlink (from Lewis and Clark explorations) to the Kentucky Derby comes via William Clark.” — Filson Historic Society in Louisville. 

It additionally drew specific consideration from President Abraham Lincoln, who was born in Kentucky in 1809. 

“I feel to lose Kentucky is almost the identical as to lose the entire recreation,” Lincoln wrote in a letter to Sen. O.H. Browning of Illinois in 1861.

Abraham Lincoln birthplace

Abraham Lincoln was famously born in a Kentucky pioneer log cabin, a duplicate of which is on show on the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois. Lincoln noticed the destiny of his dwelling state as important to the end result of the Civil Warfare.  (Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum)

The Union didn’t lose Kentucky. Nor did it achieve it. The commonwealth was ravaged by inside battle amid the broader nationwide bloodshed. 

Kentucky’s economic system was devastated by the struggle, together with its cherished horse-racing business, which dates again to the arrival of the primary pioneers within the late 1700s.  

“Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. himself had no identified racing curiosity till 1872, when a gaggle of horse breeders, involved with the decline of horse-racing in Louisville, approached him with a plan to put it aside,” stories the Filson Historic Society. 

He constructed the monitor on 80 acres leased from his uncles John and Henry Churchill. 

He visited Europe, the place he was impressed by the spectacle and the standard of the Epsom Races in Britain

He returned with a plan to revive Kentucky’s horse-racing business with an equally glamorous spectacle.

“He constructed the monitor on 80 acres leased from his uncles John and Henry Churchill, simply three miles south of downtown Louisville,” Churchill Downs stories in its on-line historical past.

Horse race in Britain

Racegoers benefit from the betting and the environment on the Investec Derby Day held at Epsom Downs Racecourse, Surrey, southern England, in June 2011. The Queen’s horse Carlton Home was searching for to be the primary Derby winner owned by a reigning monarch for over 100 years, however completed in third place.  (Tom Stoddart/Getty Photographs)

Clark raised cash by promoting membership subscriptions to the monitor, the Louisville Jockey Membership.  

“With 320 membership subscriptions offered for $100 every, Clark raised a complete of $32,000,” Churchill Downs notes. 

“A bunch of horse breeders, involved with the decline of horse-racing in Louisville, approached Clark with a plan to put it aside.”

“This revenue was used to assemble a clubhouse, grandstand, Porter’s Lodge and 6 stables on web site for the opening of the monitor. All through the years, the preliminary constructions nonetheless stand, however the racetrack has continued to develop and modernize.”

‘Grand success’

The primary Kentucky Derby was held on Might 17, 1875. It was one in all three races on the Louisville Jockey Membership that day. 

“The opening day of the Kentucky Derby, at Louisville, on Monday, was a grand success,” raved the Inside Journal of Stanford, Kentucky. 

Racehorse Aristides

Aristides, Kentucky born and bred, was the successful horse within the first Kentucky Derby. Kentucky horses have gained 114 of the 148 Kentucky Derby races from 1875 to 2022. (Churchill Downs Racetrack, Courtesy of Kentucky Derby Museum)

The derby apparently debuted with lots of the traditions nonetheless cherished right this moment, in line with historian Goodlett.

Amongst them: racing followers lubricated by Kentucky bourbon original into fragrant mint juleps whereas dressed of their celebratory finery. 


“The attendance was upward of 12,000,” the New Orleans Republican reported. “The grandstand being thronged by a sensible assemblage of women and gents.” 

Aristides, an impressive chestnut colt, galloped to victory in opposition to a area of 14 different thoroughbreds “within the quickest time ever made by a three-year-old,” in line with one other modern account.

First Kentucky Derby winning jockey

Jockey Oliver Lewis, 19, of Kentucky, gained the primary Kentucky Derby in 1875 driving Aristides. (Churchill Downs Racetrack, Courtesy of Kentucky Derby Museum)

Aristides was owned by H. Value McGrath; jockeyed by Oliver Lewis, a 19-year-old African American (each males from Kentucky); and educated by Ansel Williamson, a former slave and legendary American horseman. 

Williamson was born into slavery in Virginia in 1806. He was despatched to work at famed Woodburn Stud in Louisville in 1864 within the midst of the Civil Warfare.


It was there that Williamson heroically saved Asteroid, Kentucky’s most well-known thoroughbred of the period, from Quantrill’s Raiders, a infamous band of Accomplice horsemen that included amongst its members Frank and Jesse James.

Aristides, the primary Kentucky Derby winner, was educated by Ansel Williamson, a former slave and legendary American horseman.

Quantrill’s Raiders scoured Kentucky for horses within the determined last months of the struggle after they got here throughout Woodburn Stud — searching for its most legendary horse.

“On the secure one of many guerrillas requested for Asteroid by title,” creator William P. Magnum II wrote for The Filson Membership Historic Quarterly in 1996.

Confederate raid

Illustration displaying the sacking of Lawrence, Kansas, or the Lawrence Bloodbath by the Quantrill Raiders, led by the Accomplice guerilla chief William Quantrill, on Aug. 21, 1863. The raiders tried to seize well-known Kentucky racehorse Asteroid when coach and slave Ansel Wlliamson stopped them. (Interim Archives/Getty Photographs)

“As a result of it was darkish, the shrewd coach Ansel pulled a change and substituted an inferior horse. The substitution was a courageous act as a result of the guerrillas demanded the horses at gunpoint.” 

Williamson had “saved the most effective horse within the secure,” Woodburn Stud proprietor Robert A. Alexander reportedly stated.

Black jockeys and trainers akin to 1875 champions Lewis and Willamson, a lot of them former slaves, dominated the early days of the Kentucky Derby, successful 15 of the primary 28 races and coaching six of the primary 17 winners, notes the Kentucky Fee on Human Rights.

Tragic dying

Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. by no means lived to see the Run for the Roses blossom into the beautiful spectacle it’s right this moment. 

He died by his personal hand, taking pictures himself in Nashville, Tennessee, on April 22, 1899. He was 53 years previous. 

Kentucky Derby founder and horses

The Kentucky Derby was based in 1875 by Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. It is grown into one of many best spectacles in all of sports activities. (Churchill Downs Racetrack, Courtesy of Kentucky Derby Museum and Getty Photographs)

There’s a haunting precedent to his dying. 

Clark’s namesake, explorer Meriwether Lewis, reportedly killed himself by gunshot, too, additionally in Tennessee, in 1809. The reason for his dying has been disputed.

Clark Jr. was reportedly struggling nice monetary hardship, spurred by large losses within the inventory market crash and the Panic of 1893. 

The signature twin spires have been added to Churchill Downs in 1895. 

The Derby itself has suffered lean years after the promise of 1875. 

“The monitor was not in good monetary form, there have been quick fields and it wasn’t sure what the Derby would turn into,” stated Goodlett. 

Roses and twin spires

A basic view of roses within the winner’s circle with the Twin Spires within the background throughout the 147th working of the Kentucky Derby on Might 1, 2021, at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Brian Spurlock/Icon Sportswire by way of Getty Photographs)

The shortest area got here in 1892, when solely three horses ran within the Kentucky Derby. (In 1905, solely three horses ran as properly, after two others scratched.)

In 1894, Clark surrendered management of the occasion. New administration took over, solidified the occasion and expanded the infrastructure. 

The signature twin spires have been added to Churchill Downs the next yr, 1895. 


The normal music “My Outdated Kentucky Dwelling,” which was written in 1852, solely slowly grew to become part of the lore of the Kentucky Derby. Its first confirmed look was on the forty seventh race in 1921. 

Twenty of the world’s quickest racehorses usually compete within the Kentucky Derby, with no worry of a dismal area of three. 

Greater than 150,000 individuals pack Churchill Downs every year. Hundreds of thousands extra collect round TVs and at events from coast to coast, many dressed of their Derby most interesting, as in the event that they’re at Churchill Downs. 

Kentucky Derby fashion

Race followers present their model on the 141st working of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, Might 2, 2015. (Jim Owens/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire by way of Getty Photographs)

The successful horse will earn $1.86 million this yr.

“We all know what the Kentucky Derby has turn into — an unbelievable sporting and cultural occasion not simply within the U.S. however around the globe,” stated Goodlett.


“It wouldn’t have occurred if we didn’t have what Clark began.” 

However, the historian added, “the scope of the Kentucky Derby right this moment was by no means identified to him.”

To learn extra tales on this distinctive “Meet the American Who…” collection from Fox Information Digital, click on right here.

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