138 It's a small number if we're counting raindrops. It's a big number if we're stuffing clowns in a Volkswagen. And it's an unattainable number if we're counting birthdays. But at Churchill Downs, 138 marks the most enduring tradition in American sports. Saturday we celebrate the 138th Kentucky Derby. That's 138 years in a row without a break — not for rain, not for snow, not for war, labor strife, disease or any of the multitude of other reasons that have delayed, postponed or sidetracked other American sports traditions at one point or another.
As the years click by, we take them for granted. Kentucky Derby 136 ... Kentucky Derby 137 ... Kentucky Derby 138 ...
Stop right there. That's a really, really, really, long time. Today, we'll help you appreciate that extraordinarily large number.
One hundred thirty-eight.
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An American original
The most enduring traditions in American sports have not been quite as enduring as the Kentucky Derby:
U.S. Open tennis (131 years uninterrupted): The only one of the four Grand Slam tennis tournaments played in America is also the longest continually running. Started in 1881 as the U.S. National Championships, the event has played out every year since. Wimbledon (started in 1877), the French Open (1891) and the Australian Open (1905) have all experienced interruptions.
Rose Bowl (98 years): "The Granddaddy of Them All" is the oldest of college football's bowl games, dating to 1902. The Rose Bowl was dropped from the Tournament of Roses schedule after only one game and did not resume until 1916. The chariot races that had replaced it from 1904-1915 had become too dangerous, and interest had waned.
National Invitation Tournament (75 years): The men's NIT is one year older than the NCAA men's basketball tournament, which has churned out champions every year since 1939.
PGA Championship (69 years): The longest continuous run of golf's four majors belongs to the PGA, which teed off for the first time in 1916 and has been played every year since with breaks for war in 1917, 1918 and 1943. The U.S. Open is even older than the PGA, dating to 1895. It, too, was interrupted by both world wars, in 1917-18 and 1942-45. The Masters golf tournament, renowned as "a tradition unlike any other" was first held in 1934. It has been held every year since except for 1943-45 because of World War II. The oldest of the majors is the British Open, which made its debut in 1860 but was not held in 1871, 1915-1919 and 1940-45.
Indianapolis 500 (67 years): "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing" made its debut in 1911 but was interrupted in 1917-18 and 1942-45 during America's participation in world wars.
NBA Finals (66 years): The championship of professional basketball has been decided every year dating to 1947.
Daytona 500 (54 years): The most prestigious event of the NASCAR season has never put on the brakes since its start in 1959. The race faced its greatest peril this year, when it was postponed by rain for the first time and held one day later than originally scheduled. An on-track explosion and fire during the race threatened to damage the track but was extinguished in time for the event to be completed.
Super Bowl (46 years): The championship of professional football has been contested uninterrupted in its current incarnation every year since 1967.
World Series (17 years): Baseball's Fall Classic was first contested in 1903, with the American League's Boston Americans defeating the National League's Pittsburgh Pirates. It was canceled in 1904 because the NL champion New York Giants refused to play over a rules dispute. It was called off again in 1994 because of a players strike.
Stanley Cup (six years): Hockey makes an impressive run at the Derby's tradition, but its consistency also has been compromised. The first Stanley Cup was awarded in 1893 to an amateur team from Montreal. After passing through several leagues, the Stanley Cup stuck with the NHL in 1926. The Spanish flu epidemic (1919) and the NHL lockout (2005) have been the only interruptions.
Kentucky Derby vs. baseball
Field of Dreams had it wrong.
The 1989 movie's classic speech about the enduring tradition of baseball included these memorable lines, spoken in the baritone of James Earl Jones:
"The one constant through all the years ... has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It's been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time."
Baseball has marked much of the time, but not all of the time. That designation goes to the Kentucky Derby.
The first Kentucky Derby took place in 1875, only 10 years after the end of America's Civil War.
Though legend has it that Abner Doubleday invented baseball in 1839, and the first professional club — the Cincinnati Red Stockings — formed in 1869, Major League Baseball did not completely get its act together until the year after the first Kentucky Derby.
Baseball's current structure dates to 1876, the year the National League was founded. The American League came along in 1901.
Older than the Olympics?
The Kentucky Derby is not the world's oldest sporting event. It was modeled after the Epsom Derby, which has been run in England since 1780. But the Derby has been around longer than these world-famous sporting events:
Olympic Games: The modern Olympic Games began in 1896. If you want to get picky, the ancient Olympics can be traced to 776 B.C. and continued for nearly 12 centuries. But they took a rather lengthy break before resuming.
World Cup soccer: The championship of men's soccer has been played every four years since 1930, with the exceptions of the war years of 1942 and 1946.
The first Kentucky Derby
The first time it was run, the Kentucky Derby wasn't even the main event at the track that day.
On May 17, 1875, a Monday afternoon, Kentucky Derby winner Aristides ran the then-11/2-mile race in 2:373/4, a world-record time for a 3-year-old.
Oliver Lewis, a 19-year-old Kentucky native and one of 13 black jockeys in the 15-rider race, rode Aristides for horse owner Henry Price McGrath.
The race was started from a line drawn in the dirt, and when it was over, Aristides had won by 2 lengths to claim a purse of $2,850 in front of a crowd estimated at 10,000.
A nod to the Oaks
The Kentucky Oaks — the filly race the day before the Derby — has never been the national spectacle the Run for the Roses has become, but it's every bit as old.
The Oaks celebrated its 138th running Friday, and has matched the Derby by renewing each year without interruption since its debut on May 19, 1875.
Nobody had these in 1875
Items that had not yet been invented when the first Kentucky Derby was run:
■ Telephone (1876)
■ Incandescent light bulb (1879)
■ Automobile (1885)
■ Hershey Bar (1900)
■ Flashlight (1902)
Not yet news in 1875
Historical events that had not yet taken place when the first Kentucky Derby was run:
■ Custer defeated at Little Big Horn (1876)
■ Birth of Albert Einstein (1879)
■ Wyatt Earp in the OK Corral gunfight (1881)
■ The Wright Brothers take flight (1903)
■ The sinking of the Titanic (1912)
■ Black Gold won the 50th Kentucky Derby in 1924, six years before Adolph Rupp won his first basketball game as head coach at the University of Kentucky.
■ The singing of My Old Kentucky Home as a Derby tradition is believed to have begun with the 47th running in 1921.
■ Churchill Downs began promoting the mint julep as the Kentucky Derby's signature drink in 1938.
The Triple Crown
The two races that join the Kentucky Derby to make up the remaining jewels of the Triple Crown both were run for the first time before the first Kentucky Derby, but neither could sustain the Derby's continuous streak.
Preakness: The traditional second leg of the Triple Crown, at Pimlico Racetrack in Baltimore, was run for the first time on Tuesday, May 27, 1873. It was briefly discontinued from 1891-93.
Belmont: The final leg of the Triple Crown, run at New York's Belmont Park, debuted in 1867. The race was discontinued in 1911-12 but has been run every year since.
Nowhere near 50
Thirteen states joined the United States after the first Kentucky Derby:
Colorado (1876), North Dakota (1889), South Dakota (1889), Montana (1889), Washington (1889), Idaho (1890), Wyoming (1890), Utah (1896), Oklahoma (1907), New Mexico (1912), Arizona (1912), Alaska (1959), Hawaii (1959).