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The Kentucky DerbyThe Kentucky Derby

How the Run for the Roses Became America's Premier Sporting Event

James C. Nicholson

Winner of the Kentucky Literary Award for Non-fiction

Narrated by Gregg A. Rizzo

Available from Audible

Book published by University Press of Kentucky

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. 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

“Jamie 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

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


“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

“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

“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 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.”


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University Press Audiobooks
an imprint of Redwood Audiobooks

University Press Audiobooks