Opening day at Churchill Downs, Withers day at Aqueduct, the 135th Kentucky Derby a week away and spring is in the air.

When what would become the greatest tradition in American sport was first run, Ulysses S. Grant was president of the 37 United States, the total population of which was about 45 million.

In New York, the conviction of “Boss” W.M. Tweed on fraud charges marked the beginning of recovery from the financial panic of 1873 and the catcher’s mask was introduced to baseball. Congress was considering authorization of the minting the 20-cent silver piece and gold was discovered in Deadwood and Wildwood gulches in South Dakota. Aristides, on May 17, the third Monday of May, defeated Volcano and 13 others, one of which was identified only as “brown colt by Baywood.”

The new race at the Jockey Club south of Louisville was patterned after the English Derby, the concept born from Colonel M. Lewis Clark, and embraced immediately by the leaders of Kentucky society. It has become something else entirely but the Kentucky Derby has endured the ages and evolved into the world’s most famous horse race – the American classic, which has blossomed with unique traditions become a two-minute race upon which the first four months of every year is focused.

It has inspired great literary figures.

“This Kentucky Derby, whatever it is—a race, an emotion, a turbulence, an explosion—is one of the most beautiful and violent and satisfying things I have ever experienced.”
—John Steinbeck

'It is now about to be the one 30 minutes past 4 o'clock out of all possible 4 o'clocks on one Saturday afternoon out of all possible Saturday afternoons.'' The 10 horses parade to post - the 10 animals which for the next two minutes will not just symbolize but bear the burden and be the justification, not just of their own individual three years of life, but of the generations of selection and breeding and training and care which brought them to this one triumphant two minutes where one will be supreme and nine will be supreme failures.

“Only a little over two minutes: one simultaneous metallic clash as the gates spring. Though you do not really know what it was you hear: whether it was that metallic crash, or the simultaneous thunder of the hooves in that first leap or the massed voices, the gasp, the exhalation--whatever it was, the clump of horses indistinguishable yet, like a brown wave dotted with the bright silks of the riders like chips flowing toward us along the rail until, approaching, we can begin to distinguish individuals, streaming past us now as individual horses--horses which (including the rider) once stood about eight feet tall and 10 feet long, now look like arrows twice that length and less than half that thickness, shooting past and bunching again as perspective diminishes, then becoming individual horses once more about the turn into the backstretch, streaming on, to bunch for the last time into the homestretch itself, then again individuals, individual horses, the individual horse, the Horse: 2:01 4/5 minutes."

--William Faulkner, Sports Illustrated, 1955

Interesting that Faulkner failed to mention the outcome: Swaps beat Nashua in that Derby.

And it has inspired others …

“On our way back to the hotel after Friday’s races I warned Steadman about some of the other problems we’d have to cope with. Neither of us had brought any strange illegal drugs, so we would have to get by on booze. 'You should keep in mind,' I said, ‘that almost everybody you talk to from now on will be drunk. People who seem very pleasant at first might suddenly swing at you for no reason at all.’”

--Hunter S. Thompson, Scanlan’s Monthly, 1970

The Derby has inspired many voices over the last 135 years and some literature on deadline. Most of all, it has inspired people to chase an almost impossible dream fueled by the desire to wake up on a first Saturday of May and think: I’ve got a horse running in the Kentucky Derby today and he has a shot.”