Today’s Kentucky Derby is a multimillion-dollar spectacle involving corporate sponsorship, worldwide media coverage, and an annual citywide festival in Louisville. Over its nearly century-and-a-half history, the Kentucky Derby has grown to be one of the biggest sporting events of the year, attracting 150,000 spectators at the track and nearly 15 million television viewers on the first Saturday each May.
But 1875, the year of the first Derby, was a different time. The Louisville Jockey Club track, which would one day bear the name “Churchill Downs,” was a small structure that might, on its best day, provide seating and standing room for 12,000 spectators. The grandstand was plain and functional and included a section reserved for bookmakers, whose trade was legal and who operated in the open. Perhaps most significantly, the majority of jockeys in the race were Black, in stark contrast to the present-day Derby, where participation by African-American jockeys is rare.
In The First Kentucky Derby, racing historian Mark Shrager examines the events leading up to the first “Run for the Roses,” the unsuccessful effort that the winning owner might have made to rig the race for his preferred horse, and the prominent role played by African Americans in Gilded Age racing culture—a holdover from pre-emancipation days, when slaves were trained from birth to ride for their wealthy owners and grew up surrounded by the horses that would be their life’s work.
Mark Shrager has published some 300 articles about every aspect of horse racing in magazines such as Turf & Sport Digest, American Turf Monthly, and others. His 1974 Turf & Sport Digest article, “1,001 Surefire Ways to Lose a Horse Race,” was published in the annual Best Sports Stories anthology. He is the author of The Great Sweepstakes of 1877: A True Story of Southern Grit, Gilded Age Tycoons, and a Race That Galvanized the Nation and Diane Crump: A Horse-Racing Pioneer’s Life in the Saddle, which won the 2020 Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award for the best book on Thoroughbred racing. He lives in Altadena, CA, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.
“Mark Shrager has found the winner’s circle once again! The Kentucky Derby is an American institution, but its foundational running has never been examined in such depth prior to this important and entertaining work. A master storyteller who presents history from previously neglected perspectives, Shrager has delivered the first truly comprehensive account of the inaugural Run for the Roses. It is essential reading for any fan of Thoroughbred racing and American history.”
"From Aristides to Lewis, from Clark to McGrath, Mark Shrager enthralls the reader with the particulars of that inaugural Kentucky Derby, the inspiration for a century and a half of memorable contests. Within these pages, he weaves the sights and the sounds of that iconic day with the context that gave rise to it, including the societal changes that essentially eliminated an entire race of Americans from the sport. Come for the story and stay for this finely drawn portrait of American horse racing in the era that formed the foundation for the sport as modern fans know it."
Revisiting the inaugural Kentucky Derby and its winner, Aristides, can be—and usually is—the straightforward telling of a familiar story, but it doesn’t have to be. In The First Kentucky Derby, award-winning author Mark Shrager uses the familiar elements of the horse’s background and the race itself as bookends for a well-researched narrative that takes the reader on a series of intriguing twists and turns, including the demise of African American jockeys and the life of controversial breeder and owner Henry Price McGrath. These are essential parts of the overall story and make The First Kentucky Derby an excellent read.
A wealth of information on the roots of the Kentucky Derby.