How Much Do Kentucky Derby Winners Get Paid? The Prize Money Is Eye-Popping

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The most famous horse race in America will kick off its 144th year on Saturday as jockeys, spectators, and horses gather at Churchill Downs field for the Kentucky Derby. Often called "the most exciting two minutes in sports," the annual race will pit 20 of the fastest horses in the country against each other, and whoever's riding the winning horse will take home more money than any of the past victors. But exactly how much do Kentucky Derby winners get paid?

The prize money for the race — also known as the "purse" — is divided among the top five finishers, although of course, it's not divided evenly. In 2018, the total purse was doubled to $2 million, and the winners will all split that. Here's how the distribution breaks down:

  • First place: $1.24 million (62 percent of the purse)
  • Second place: $400,000 (20 percent)
  • Third place: $200,000 (10 percent)
  • Fourth place: $100,000 (five percent)
  • Fifth place: $60,000 (three percent)

That's right: Competing in the Kentucky Derby gives jockeys the chance to make over a million dollars in two minutes. The purse is so big that even the fifth place winner has the chance to take home more money from the event than many people make all year.

Of course, it's worth looking at that prize money in context. Jockeys spend loads of time and money training for the derby long before they enter the gates, after all. Buying a horse to compete in the derby can cost over $100,000, and jockeys have to pony up $50,000 just to compete in the race, according to ESPN.

The Kentucky Derby purse has gradually increased over time. It reached $100,000 for the first time in 1956, then hit $1 million 40 years later, according to DerbyCraze.com. It was increased to its current size of $2 million in 2005.

That's not the only way the race has changed. When the first Kentucky Derby kicked off in 1875, the track was one and a half miles long; it was shortened to 1.25 miles in 1896, according to CBS Sports, and it's remained that long ever since. As the track got smaller, the number of horses in competition increased, growing from 15 in 1875 to the modern-day lineup of 20.

In addition, the race's popularity has increased exponentially since the 19th-century. According to Sporting News, the first Kentucky Derby drew 10,000 cheering fans to Churchill Downs. That's nothing to sneeze at — until you compare it to 170,000-plus spectators who came to the 2015 race.

Of course, jockeys aren't the only ones who stand to earn big on race day. In 2016, gamblers bet a total of $124 million on the race, according to the official Kentucky Derby website. This year's race may well have even more money on the table — in part because there's no 2-1 favorite, as there was in 2016, and in part because the race will now be accepting Bitcoin for bets for the first time in its history.

A bunch of money isn't the only thing the winner of the Kentucky Derby will take home: Per tradition, they also receive a garland with more than 400 roses sewn together, lending the race to sometimes be called the "run for the roses."

This year's race will take place on the first Saturday of May, as it always does. It'll be over almost as quickly as it starts, but if you haven't got your fix before the race ends, don't worry: The Kentucky Derby is only the first of three major horse-racing events this year, and will soon be followed by the Preakness and Belmont Stakes.