What’s in a (Race) Name? The Man Behind the Derby

The Kentucky Derby's name origin is more interesting than it might seem.

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 serves as 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 name? The “Kentucky” part is obvious; Churchill Downs is located in Louisville, Ky. But what about the “Derby”?

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The Kentucky Derby is actually based off of and named for a prestigious race in England called the Derby (frequently referred to as the “Epsom Derby” after the track where it is held), 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. 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.”

The 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 coin flip determining the winner. Thus, on the whim of a coin, 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, Belmont Derby, and Super Derby. But just think — had that coin flip nearly 240 years ago gone the other way, we would be eagerly anticipating the 143rd running of the Kentucky Bunbury instead of the Kentucky Derby!

Let’s take a look at a few other Churchill Downs races named for legends—both human and equine—of the past  …

Grade 1 Longines Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs

Since the Kentucky Derby is named for England’s Derby, it’s not surprising that the Kentucky Oaks is likewise named for England’s Oaks. The word “Oaks” in horse racing has since become a term applied to many prestigious stakes races for 3-year-old fillies, with other prominent examples being the Irish Oaks, the Coaching Club American Oaks, and the Santa Anita Oaks.

Grade 2 Alysheba Stakes at Churchill Downs

In one of the most unforgettable Kentucky Derbys in history, Alysheba overcame near-disaster to win the roses in 1987. In the homestretch, a colt named Bet Twice was leading the way while Alysheba surged into contention on the outside. Suddenly, Bet Twice drifted out, causing Alysheba to clip heels and stumble with the rest of the field close behind. Miraculously, Alysheba regained his footing, shrugged off the incident like it was nothing, and rallied past Bet Twice to win.

Alysheba’s name would live on even if he’d never won another race, but the Derby was merely the first of nine Grade 1 races Alysheba would win during the next two years. In 1988, he ended his career with four straight Grade 1 victories — including a late-running triumph in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs — to be named Horse of the Year.

Grade 1 La Troienne Stakes at Churchill Downs

There may be no broodmare in history that has had a bigger impact on the Thoroughbred breed than La Troienne. Purchased from England in 1930 by the U.S. breeder Colonel E. R. Bradley, La Troienne produced several talented racehorses, including Preakness and Belmont Stakes winner Bimelech and the Florida Derby-winning filly Black Helen, but her long-lasting influence came through her many daughters, who were equally successful producers of champions. The seemingly never-ending list of notable descendants from La Troienne’s daughters and granddaughters includes such legends and champions as Affectionately, Buckpasser, Busher, Easy Goer, Mineshaft, Princess Rooney, Relaxing and Smarty Jones, plus well over 1,000 other stakes winners.

Grade 2 Eight Belles Stakes at Churchill Downs

In 2008, a gray filly named Eight Belles brought a four-race win streak into the Kentucky Derby, where she would attempt to become the first filly to win the run for the roses in 20 years. Outrunning her odds, she finished a decisive second behind Big Brown, but suffered ankle injuries while galloping out after the race and had to be euthanized. The following year, Churchill Downs chose to honor her unforgettable legacy by placing her name on a sprint race for 3-year-old fillies.

Grade 3 Pat Day Mile Stakes at Churchill Downs

It’s only fitting that Churchill Downs would have a graded stakes race named for the Hall of Fame jockey Pat Day, who is the all-time leading rider at Churchill Downs with a staggering 2,482 victories under the twin spires. His biggest win at Churchill was surely the 1992 Kentucky Derby aboard Lil E. Tee, but Day also won two editions of the Kentucky Oaks and four Breeders’ Cup races at Churchill, including the 1998 Breeders’ Cup Classic. Some of the greatest horses he rode include champions Easy Goer, Dance Smartly, Sky Classic, Theatrical, and Favorite Trick.

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