New Jersey is not normally associated with horse country, but the Garden State has the distinction of hosting the first derby, a horse race for three-year-olds. The first running of the Jersey Derby was on June 7, 1864, in Paterson, Passaic County, 11 years before the first running of the Kentucky Derby. Sponsored by the Pas-saic County Agricultural Society, the race fea-tured 12 of the nation’s top three-year-olds in the mile-and-a-half competition.The derby created an air of excitement during a troubling time. “When men met for busi-ness by day and assembled for amusement by night, the Derby, next to the [Civil] Was and the state of the country, was the prevailing topic,” claimed a report in the June 18, 1864 edition of Spirit of the Times.First and Later WinnersAn estimated 10,000 fans, many of whom traveled by horse and carriage and the Erie Railroad, turned out to see the derby. Norfolk, a bright bay horse, won by 10 lengths over second-place finisher Tipperary.The Jersey Derby went on a 78-year hiatus and would not be run again until 1942 at the original Garden State Park in what is now Cherry Hill, Camden County. The name of the race was changed to the Jersey Handicap.One of the biggest races in the history of the event came in 1948. The race was then known as the Jersey Stakes. With legendary jockey Eddie Arcaro in the saddle, Citation, the winner of the Kentucky Derby and the Preak-ness, defeated four other rivals to win the Jersey Stakes by 11 lengths.
Citation then went to New York and won the Belmont Stakes, completing the Triple Crown. He was the only horse to win the Triple Crown and the Jersey Stakes in the same year.Eugene Mori, owner of Garden State Park, restored the name Jersey Derby to the race in 1960. Bally Ache and jockey Bobby Ussery won it that year.A Trip to Atlantic CityFire destroyed Garden State Park on April 14, 1977, and the Atlantic City Race Course, in Hamilton, Atlantic County, was the host of five Jersey Derbies before the rebuilt Garden State Park reopened in 1985. The Jersey Derby returned with a flourish to Cherry Hill that year when Spend a Buck, winner of the Kentucky Derby, bypassed the Preakness to enter the Jersey Derby, forfeiting the chance to win the Triple Crown. Spend a Buck’s owners got some financial consolation when the horse won the Jersey Derby, receiving the winner’s share of $600,000 plus $2 million by sweeping the four-race series: the Cherry Hill Mile, Garden States Stakes, Kentucky Derby, and the Jersey Derby.