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150th "Run for the Roses": The history and spectacle of the Kentucky Derby

The pageantry of the 150th Kentucky Derby
The pageantry of the 150th Kentucky Derby 05:14

Every year the Kentucky Derby is one of America's great pageants, as a horse-loving, hat-wearing, julep-swilling crowd of 150,000-plus breaks out its Sunday best on the first Saturday of May, in the shadow of those iconic white spires at Louisville's Churchill Downs. 

"First Saturday in May means something to millions of people," said Mike Anderson, president of Churchill Downs. "It's Derby Day!"

But this isn't "every year" – it's even more special. This Saturday the longest continuously-held sporting event in America will celebrate its 150th birthday. "We have run a Kentucky Derby every single year since 1875," said Chris Goodlett, curator of the Kentucky Derby Museum. "We've had two world wars, a depression, pandemics. We've always run a Kentucky Derby."

The paddock at Churchill Downs in Louisville, which opened in 1875, and recently underwent a half-billion-dollar renovation.  CBS News

Jockey Mike Smith has had the most mounts in Kentucky Derby history – 28.  He's won it twice, in 2005 on Giacomo, and in 2018 riding Justify. With more than 5,700 career races won, Smith was asked if his two Derby wins are different. "Without a doubt," he replied. "I've often tried to describe what the feeling, what it feels like. I can't find words!"

Much of the Derby's history is a source of pride in Kentucky. Much, but not all.  Thirteen of the 15 jockeys in the first Derby were Black men, including the winner, Oliver Lewis, riding Aristides. Black jockeys won 15 of the first 28 Derbies. But then, there were no Black jockeys for an uncomfortable length of time, from 1920 to 2000 – long past Jim Crow. "It's an unfortunate time in our history where certain laws prohibited African American jockeys from participating," said Anderson. "Certainly we've come a long way since then. And we're trying to ensure that we're fair and there's equal opportunities for anyone to participate in our sport today."

Black jockeys won 15 of the first 28 Kentucky Derbies.  CBS News

Recent history has also created challenges to the Derby's image. Last year a dozen horses went down during training in the weeks surrounding the race. An independent investigation cleared Churchill Downs of any fault in the deaths. But questions linger.

"Churchill Downs takes safety of our participants very seriously," said Anderson. "We don't ever think it's suitable or tolerable when there's an equine death."

WEB EXTRA: Churchill Downs president on steps taken to improve safety of horses, riders

For all the pageantry we will see unfold at Churchill Downs, it is, after all, the horses that are at the center of everything. Which is why, during the last decade, the track has spent half a billion dollars renovating and modernizing. The centerpiece is a $200 million paddock to showcase the magnificent creatures who are the stars of the show. 

American Pharoah won the Kentucky Derby, and then the Triple Crown, in 2015. He's now living the life: out to stud at Coolmore Farm in Kentucky horse country, under the watch of Dermot Ryan.

American Pharoah will gently take a carrot out of your hand, but don't be fooled: "Once he got onto the track, he was focused," Ryan said. "And he just ran. I mean, they couldn't stop him. And that's what made him so good. He had the will and the heart to win."

Triple Crown-winner American Pharoah enjoying retirement at Coolmore Farm in Kentucky. (With correspondent Jim Axelrod and farm manager Dermot Ryan.) CBS News

This coming Saturday, for the 150th time another three-year old will possess just a touch more heart than the rest of the field, and end the day draped with a garland of roses.

Smith said, "I get emotional just thinking about it. It's pretty neat. It's powerful, man. It's a feeling. I wish I could bottle that feeling up, man, and just let someone take a sip of it, man, 'cause, I mean, it's amazing!"

And it will be like every other first Saturday in May, when they run the "fastest two minutes in sports" at Churchill Downs, only better.

"Every Kentucky Derby is special and unique," said Anderson, "but there's something a little bit more special about our 150th."

149th Kentucky Derby
Mage, ridden by jockey Javier Castellano, crosses the finish line to win the 149th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, May 6, 2023, in Louisville, Kentucky. Michael Reaves/Getty Images

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Story produced by Jon Carras. Editor: Mike Levine.

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