Horse racing is undoubtedly a global sport, though most will think of territories like the UK and the Middle East as true hotbeds of it. However, the U.S. is also an enormous market for racing and features some of the most prominent races in the world.
The Kentucky Derby
No single horse race is bigger in the U.S. than the Kentucky Derby, which takes place on the first Saturday in May every year at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. It serves as the first leg of the American Triple Crown, a trio of races which also includes the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes.
The Kentucky Derby is a Grade 1 race that is limited to three-year-old horses and a cap of 20 of them. Launched in 1875, the race was originally 1.5 miles in length, but in 1896 was reduced to 1.25 miles and has remained that distance ever since.
It has a shared prize of $2 million, easily making it the most lucrative race in America for jockeys, with $1,425,000 going to the victor. Betting on horse racing is, of course, a popular pastime for many and the Kentucky Derby always attracts huge numbers of punters every year.
The event itself also draws a considerable crowd, with roughly 150,000 attending on average each year. This year’s race gathered a television audience of 14.5 million, which was a staggering 22 per cent share.
Dubbed “the most exciting two minutes in sports,” the race frequently produces drama and thrills for those watching. In 2019, for the first time ever, the horse which passed the finishing post first did not win the race.
Maximum Security was disqualified by stewards after it was deemed the horse had impeded other racers on the final bend, and so the trophy went to Country House, the 62/1 underdog, which finished second.
The Derby has also become more than just a horse race; it is something of a cultural and social event. For those who flock to the Churchill Downs, it is a day of celebration and enjoyment. The event even has a traditional drink; mint juleps (an iced cocktail consisting of bourbon, mint, and sugar).
The Preakness Stakes
The Preakness Stakes is considered by most to be the second-biggest horse race in the U.S. and takes place just two weeks after the Kentucky Derby. It has only been held before the Derby on eleven occasions, and in both 1917 and 1922 the two races were held on the same day.
Preakness was established two years prior to the Derby and was also initially a distance of 1.5 miles, but over the years this length fluctuated until 1925 when it was reduced to just over one mile, which remains its current distance. When it first began, the prize pot for Preakness was just $2,050. Now, it stands at $1 million.
Its trophy – the Woodlawn Vase – is actually worth $1 million, making it the most valuable trophy in all of American sports. It was valued at this price in 1983.
In 2017, Preakness attracted its largest ever attendance with 140,237 people gathering at Pimlico to take in the race. It now regularly pulls in over 130,000 people every year.
Like the Derby, Preakness embraces the festival feel of race day but takes things a step further by holding an actual music festival, called Infield Fest. The event always features huge names from the music industry and creates an infectious party atmosphere.
The Belmont Stakes
The third race in the American Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes, is held in early June, just a few weeks after Preakness, and is the oldest of the three as it was first run in 1867. Its nickname, “Test of the Champion”, alludes to the fact that it’s the longest of the three races at 1.5 miles.
Held at Belmont Park on Long Island, New York, the race reached a peak attendance of 120,139 in 2004, and most years will clear a crowd of over 100,000.
Arguably the most famous horse to race at Belmont was Secretariat, who set a race record of 2:24 in 1973, a time which is yet to be beaten on any 1.5-mile dirt track in the world. He also won by a staggering 31 lengths, which is largely unheard of at that distance.
The Breeders’ Cup
The Breeders’ Cup is the biggest race not included in the American Triple Crown and part of its appeal is that the venue for it regularly changes, giving more people in the U.S. a better chance to attend. It’s a relatively new event, founded in 1982, and is now held over two days instead of one.
American horse racing fans have plenty of big races to get excited about each year, with the American Triple Crown providing the three most prestigious events. Whether they’re watching on television and placing bets or making the journey to attend in person, these races provide drama, excitement and thrills.