The recently completed Kentucky Derby is the most famous horse race in history. Run at Churchill Downs in Louisville since 1875, the derby has attracted huge crowds for the last three decades.

The Kentucky Derby is a significant part of the cycle of Kentucky life. Well-known humorist and country philosopher Irvin S. Cobb of Paducah, Kentucky was asked to explain the derby’s magic.

“If I could do that, I’d have a larynx of spun silver and the tongue of an appointed angel,” he said and added: “Until you go to Kentucky and with your own eyes behold the derby, you ain’t never been nowhere and you ain’t never seen nothing!”

The derby is a 1 ¼-mile race for three-year-old thoroughbreds. With the exception of the 1945 race, the derby had been held on the first Saturday in May each year since 1938. Due to the COVID-19 corona virus pandemic, last year’s race was held on September 5.

In Louisville, the derby is a two-week celebration known as the Kentucky Derby Festival. The festival normally presents more than 70 events including a mini marathon, a balloon race, and the Great Steamboat Race. 

The derby also is a social affair, with high society entertaining guests at lavish parties. It is one big party for thousands of spectators who converge on the infield for a day of fun. Other fans, including celebrities, politicians, and business leaders, usually watch from the stands and millions watch the event on television.

The Jesse Stuart Foundation has published a wonderful chapter book about the Derby. “Kentucky Derby Champion” is the story of the great racehorse, Exterminator. Affectionately known as Old Bones, he was born May 30, 1915, at the W.D. Knight farm, near Lexington.

An unknown work horse in 1918, he won the Kentucky Derby. He went on to become America’s top winner of cup races and, according to many experts, the greatest thoroughbred ever developed in America. Exterminator retired in 1924, at the age of nine, when he pulled up lame in his 100th race. He died in 1945, at the ripe old age of 30.  Exterminator is buried on the Kilmer farm, near Binghamton, New York, beside his constant companion, the pony Peanuts II, and near his old stable mate, Sun Briar.

“Kentucky Derby Champion,” a 144-page softback book, was written by the late Kentucky author Mildred Mastin Pace and illustrated by well-known artist Wesley Dennis. It is a wonderful book for children in fifth grade or higher, but adults will enjoy it, too.

This book is available at the JSF Bookstore & Appalachian Gift Shop and online via its Amazon storefront. For more information, or to place an order, call (606) 326-1667, or email

By James M. Gifford
JSF CEO & Senior Editor