Why is it named the Kentucky Derby?

Profile Picture: Kellie Reilly

April 13th, 2015

The Kentucky Derby is America's most celebrated horse race, but its inspiration comes from England.

Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark, founder of Churchill Downs, wanted to model the track's major races after the English classics. The gold standard for Europe's three-year-olds is the Derby at Epsom, which also stages the corresponding race for three-year-old fillies, called the Oaks.

Both the Epsom Derby and Oaks are contested at about 1 1/2 miles. And originally so were the Kentucky Derby and Oaks, in the early years since their inception in 1875. Both were eventually shortened, with the Kentucky Derby firmly established at its traditional 1 1/4-mile distance in 1896. The Oaks was subsequently held at distances ranging from 1 1/16 miles to 1 1/4 miles, finally settling at its current trip of 1 1/8 miles in 1982.

But why were the Epsom classics named the Derby and Oaks at their creation in the late 18th century? An aristocratic connection, of course!

The 12th Earl of Derby, Edward Stanley, was instrumental in the development of both. The fillies' race was established first in 1779, and named after Stanley's Surrey estate. Fittingly, he won that inaugural Oaks with Bridget.

That prompted the idea to create another classic, open to both colts and fillies, the following year. According to the oft-told tale, the new race's name hung on the outcome of a coin flip. Was it to be named after the Earl of Derby, or after his friend, Sir Charles Bunbury? Luckily, the toss came up in favor of the Earl, and the first "Derby" was held at Epsom in 1780. Bunbury didn't go home empty-handed: his Diomed triumphed in that first running.

With the Epsom Derby giving rise to so many spin-offs around the world, racing fans can be grateful for that toss of the coin. The "Kentucky Bunbury" just wouldn't have the same ring to it.