This is the big one: The most important horse race of them all. Whatever happens May 6 at the Kentucky Derby will become part of racing history, especially if the winner completes the Triple Crown by sweeping the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes. American Pharoah pulled it off two years ago and became a household name. Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977) and Affirmed (1978) are still talked about to this day.

Thoroughbred racing is very much rooted in tradition, so a lot more attention gets paid to studying Kentucky Derby history than just about any other sport. It’s actually the newest of the three races on the Triple Crown trail; the inaugural Derby was held in 1875 at the brand-new Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky – the same place it’s held today. The whole enterprise was conceived by Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr., who visited England in 1872 and attended their signature horse race, the Epsom Derby. Clark was impressed enough to start the Louisville Jockey Club and Driving Park Association in 1874. They raised the funds to build a racetrack on an 80-acre plot that Meriwether leased from his uncles, John and Henry Churchill. And that’s how Churchill Downs got its name.

Monday’s Child

That first Kentucky Derby in 1875 was a little different than today’s races. It was a longer race at 1-1/2 miles, matching the Epsom Derby; they’d eventually shorten it to the current 1-1/4 miles in 1896. Also, the inaugural Derby wasn’t held on the first Saturday in May, as they do now. It was held on May 17 – a Monday. The winner was Aristides, a chestnut stallion ridden by Oliver Lewis.

Triple Crown history is a bit more recent. The concept wasn’t even around when Sir Barton won the 1919 Kentucky Derby – and the Preakness just four days later, followed by the Withers Stakes and then the Belmont. There were even times when the Preakness was run before the Derby, like when Gallant Fox won all three races in 1930. But by this point, the Triple Crown concept was gaining traction, and the current system was put in place the following year with the Derby going first.

The 1930s were the start of a magical time in horse racing, and the Kentucky Derby provided the launching pad for a barrage of Triple Crown champions: Omaha (1935), War Admiral (1941), Whirlaway (1941), Count Fleet (1943), Assault (1946) and Citation (1948) were all recorded in history. Then we had to wait until the 1970s renaissance for Secretariat, the greatest thoroughbred of all-time. Has American Pharoah ushered in a new golden age for the sport? Is there another Triple Crown winner in this year’s field? We’ll start finding out in less than two weeks.