Shown with her horse ‘Have-A-Heart’, in her younger days in Upstate New York, Gram -Bessie Reeve Bennett-  was an accomplished equestrian. Horse racing began in America in 1665 in New York, in 1875 the first Kentucky Derby was held.

By Jacqueline Bennett


Even for those who do not typically follow horse races, the Kentucky Derby is an exception. First held in Louisville, Kentucky at Churchill Downs on May 17, 1875, it may well be the most storied Thoroughbred race in American History. The quality of the horses that compete in the Kentucky Derby is a major aspect of what makes it so special. It is not easy to obtain a berth in this race which is described as the longest running sports event in the United States. Aptly, the Kentucky Derby is characterized as “iconic.” 


And, every horse has a story…


Today the 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby will take place. Which magnificent 3-year old will come away with the win? Will it be the favorite Classic Empire? Or will Always Dreaming come through – the most recent odds are 4-1 and an “established trainer”, Todd Pletcher, may be a plus. Irish War Cry’s odds are at 6-1 at this writing – with a father known as a “mudder” excelling on muddy tracks which may bode well for his offspring given the wet weather conditions. Perhaps sentiment will carry Patch, who is missing a left eye, to become a surprise winner. Patch will start in the last post.


USA Today reports that 20 horses will compete, expected are 160,000 in the stands and $100 million in bets placed. Regardless of the winner, Kentucky Derby day is a time when the country pauses to admire the beauty and athleticism of these animals. How did America’s love affair begin with Kentucky Derby day?


One might venture to guess that for so many American families, including my own, horses held an integral place in their lives as our young nation grew. Other than Red Sox games, the Kentucky Derby was the only time I recall my father would stop to watch a televised sporting event. He spoke of Churchill Downs with reverence in his voice. A reverence undoubtedly developed during his childhood when the Bennett Family had stables of horses on Sunny Crest Farm in Upstate New York, and when Dad’s mother, my grandmother, Bessie Reeve Bennett, was said to have been an accomplished equestrian.  


In fact, horses had an integral role in American history. Along with the Colt 45 horses helped win the west, carried mail on the Pony Express and were critical to American farmers. Last but far from least – their speed and agility became sources of sport and competition. Horse racing started in America in New York, according to online sources. In 1665 the Newmarket course was established on what is now Long Island where historians say the first racing meet was supervised by the New York colonial governor.  


Some two hundred years later came the inaugural running of the Kentucky Derby. Known presently almost as much for ladies in attendance wearing wide-brimmed, ornately decorated hats and sipping Mint Juleps, as the outstanding competitors it attracts, this day allows us to step back into a genteel time. It is about honoring tradition. It is the first leg of the Triple Crown and winning can catapult a horse to universal celebrity. The rare few who win the Triple Crown – the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont stakes – approach immortality.



Today when a misty-eyed crowd sings “My Old Kentucky Home”, when the call goes out “riders up” and when hearts beat faster as the trumpet beckons the field to post – once again it will be time to pay homage to a glorious aspect of America’s history.


(Revision & Update – Always Dreaming won the 2017 Kentucky Derby)