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Each year on the first Saturday in May, the world turns its attention to the twin spires of Churchill Downs for the high-stakes excitement of the “greatest two minutes in sports,” the Kentucky Derby. No American sporting event can claim the history, tradition, or pageantry that the Kentucky Derby holds. For more than 130 years, spectators have been fascinated by the magnificent horses that run the Louisville track. Thoroughbreds such as Secretariat and Barbaro have earned instant international fame, along with jockeys such as Isaac Murphy, Ron Turcotte, and Calvin Borel. The Kentucky Derby: How the Run for the Roses Became America’s Premier Sporting Event calls this great tradition to post and illuminates its history and culture.

Rising from its humble beginnings as an American variation of England’s Epsom Derby, the Kentucky Derby became a centerpiece of American sports and the racing industry, confirming Kentucky’s status as the Horse Capital of the World. James C. Nicholson argues that the Derby, at its essence, is a celebration of a place, existing as a connection between Kentucky’s mythic past and modern society. The Derby is more than just a horse race—it is an experience enhanced by familiar traditions, icons, and images that help Derby fans to understand Kentucky and define themselves as Americans. Today the Kentucky Derby continues to attract international attention from royalty, celebrities, racing fans, and those who simply enjoy an icy mint julep, a fabulous hat, and a wager on who will make it to the winner’s circle.

Nicholson provides an intriguing and thorough history of the Kentucky Derby, examining the tradition, spectacle, culture, and evolution of the Kentucky Derby—the brightest jewel of the Triple Crown.

James C. Nicholson is the author of Never Say Die: A Kentucky Colt, the Epsom Derby, and the Rise of the Modern Thoroughbred Industry.

Many books have been published about the Kentucky Derby that deal with elements of the race such as the horses, jockeys, owners, and trainers. This book is much more than that -- it places the Derby within the history of the Commonwealth and in the broader context of American culture. -- John Kleber, editor of The Kentucky Encyclopedia

Nicholson has done a masterful job of researching the historical events that made the Derby the enthralling and significant event it is... You may never get to experience the thrill of entering the winners’ circle and smelling the wonderful aroma that emanates from the garland of roses that signifies the greatest achievement in the sport of Thoroughbred racing, but this wonderful book will take you on a journey that gets you as close as any piece of writing possibly could. -- Chris McCarron, two-time Kentucky Derby winner and Hall of Fame inductee, from the foreword

I have witnessed every modern Derby beginning in 1964 and have been privileged to write about the Derby many times. Through all of that involvement, however, I could never say that I really had my arms around just how the race came to be so embedded into the American soul. Now, Nicholson has provided that insight. In his lively telling, he explains the many strands of what is not so much a picture as a tapestry. Moreover, he brings us up to date as to the Derby’s ability to withstand the winds of social change wrought by warfare, racial relations, and, of late, the international aspects of the grand old race. -- Edward L. Bowen, author of nineteen books on Thoroughbred racing

Nicholson’s connections to the Thoroughbred industry all combine in this flowing, colorful but painstakingly-accurate history of the Kentucky Derby. His story is the design, the warp and weave of the fabric, and he knew where to source the embellishments which give this work its unique personality. Read this book and you will understand why, each year, this great nation holds its breath for two minutes late in the afternoon on the first Saturday in May. -- Terence Collier, Fasig-Tipton Company, Inc.

Nicholson has done a great job putting together historical facts and telling just enough of a story to make his book very interesting. It is obvious that the influence of his family's history and experiences in racing have helped him achieve this goal. -- Richard Mandella, Hall of Fame trainer

What is it about the Kentucky Derby that causes people who will not see another horse race all year to pay attention? The answer, James C. Nicholson explains, lies in the Derby's image being intertwined with that of Kentucky. The popular perception of the state as both genteel and untamed is played out in the event itself. In the early days of the Derby, an imagined link to the mythological Old South added to the appeal. Now, in the twenty-first century, the Derby has become an all-American sports experience. The Kentucky Derby: How the Run for the Roses Became America's Premier Sporting Event goes beyond the colorful history of the race and examines the reasons behind its popularity. It is not only an enjoyable read but also very enlightening. -- Tom Hammond, NBC Kentucky Derby Host

The Kentucky Derby: How the Run for the Roses Became America’s Premier Sporting Event is both informative and entertaining. Providing the reader with a unique insight into how the Kentucky Derby has evolved over the past 135 years, Nicholson illuminates the history of Kentucky’s signature sporting event, highlighting the culture, history, and rich tradition surrounding it. -- Walt Robertson, Keeneland Vice President of Sales

Keen observations . . . prove to be consistently powerful throughout the book, as the author touches on everything from the scandalous demise of celebrated black jockeys to the heavy influence of powerful Middle-Eastern sheiks. -- Kirkus Reviews

Does an excellent job describing the aura that surrounds America’s most popular thoroughbred race. -- Saratogan

Likely to become a study that sets the new standard for books concerning thoroughbred racing, especially for ones dealing with the Kentucky Derby. . . . If you fail to read this book, you have missed a good one. -- Northern Kentucky Heritage

Essential reading for anyone interested in throughbred racing, American history and/or developing a successful campaign in one's industry --

Explores how the paradoxical reputation of Kentucky for lawlessness and gentility is reflected in and helped sustain 'the most exciting two minutes in sports' despite significant cultural, political, and economic changes over its 138 year history. -- University of Kentucky College of Arts & Sciences

The favorite to be a winner for book lovers and Derby buffs alike. -- Business Lexington

A highly readable historical account of the myriad ways in which Louisville's iconic race has reflected the cultural and political climates of Kentucky as well as the world. -- Louisville Courier-Journal

You cannot help but come away from this book feeling that [Kentuckians] are savvy business people, brilliant marketers, sports enthusiasts, people passionate about a champion, a comeback, a longshot or an underdog, and yes--even blessed by God. -- Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The romance and mythology surrounding this Derby are uncovered, from the winner's blanket of red roses to the souvenir mint julep glasses to the hats the size of parade floats. -- Sunday Star Ledger

Nicholson's book will appeal to aficionados of horse racing in general and the Kentucky Derby in particular, even if one does not live in the United States. -- Horse Racing Business

More than a list of horses, riders, trainers, and owners, this this book parallels the Derby, the state of Kentucky and the people who inhabit this country who find themselves ready to watch a horse race on the first Saturday in May for reasons they really cannot put a finger on. An excellent read. -- The Past in Review

This is a book for anyone interested in Thoroughbred racing--its history, the industry--or sports and Americana more generally. -- Choice

An excellent choice for anyone interested in this annual event that brings the national press to the commonwealth and that should be a very large reading audience. -- Bowling Green Daily News

Nicholson paints an interesting, richly illustrated, and well-documented account of the Derby that will appeal to a large cross-section of readers. -- Kentucky Libraries

Nicholson applies the critical lens of the academy to the history and survival of what he deems ‘America’s premier sporting event,’ the Kentucky Derby. . . . This book is for anyone interested in thoroughbred racing—its history, the industry—or sports and Americana more generally. -- Choice

Nicholson paints an interesting, richly illustrated, and well-documented account of the Derby that will appeal to a large cross-section of readers. -- Kentucky Libraries

Nicholson’s book offers a look at the evolution of the Derby, the 'most exciting two minutes in sports,' as well as its international, national, and regional importance. -- Winner of the Kentucky Literary Award for Non-fiction & Winner of the the Kentucky History Award

Nicholson's examination of the Derby emphasizes context and as such offers a valuable contribution both to the equine literature and the historiography of Kentucky. -- Ohio Valley History

A broader audience will find lively narration and deft writing that captures the often amusing discrepancies between fabrication and fact as Nicholson describes the Derby's journey from dusty horse race to international icon of the mythic American South. -- The Historian

A scholarly but very readable study of how the Derby grew from a regional attraction to a sports and entertainment event that attracts a world-wide audience -- Louisville Voice-Tribune

Nicholson's insightful and often entertaining about much more than a bunch of Thoroughbreds running races for 14 decades....Nicholson presents a history of a Derby that was forced to be nimble to change with the times marked by racial issues, drugs and war, and the emergence of international Thoroughbred owners. What makes the book so attractive to readers is the author's ability to tell engaging stories rather than simply give a chronology of facts.Kentucky Monthly -- Kentucky Monthly

[. . .] James C. Nicholson’s The Kentucky Derby: How the Run for the Roses Became America’s Premier Sporting Event skillfully explores how popular media and collective memories reinvent the past, invent regional culture, and transform in response to larger social and political changes.

This book is a quick read but not a shallow one; it is filled with historical information and analysis of the event that is central to the identity of Kentucky and important to the public image of America. -- Indiana Magazine of History

Publication Date



The University Press of Kentucky

Place of Publication

Lexington, KY






Kentucky Derby, Horse racing, Kentucky, Sporting event


Sports Studies


Foreword by Chris McCarron

The Kentucky Derby: How the Run for the Roses Became America’s Premier Sporting Event
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