The Kentucky Derby
The History of The Kentucky Derby
Fans of the Kentucky Derby can tell you how to have a proper Derby party, how to make a mint julep, and maybe even how to bet on the race itself. A number of Derby traditions are even part of American culture. But not everyone knows the history of the Kentucky Derby, and why this all-American race is such a hot ticket.
Since 1875, it’s been the greatest two minutes in sports. This year will be the 145th year of the Run For The Roses®, and over 150,000 people will gather at Churchill Downs to watch (and place bets for) the 1.25 mile race of three-year-old thoroughbreds.
The grandson of William Clark of the famed Lewis & Clark started the Kentucky Derby. The younger Clark encountered horse racing during a visit to Europe. After meeting with several clubs, he decided to bring horse racing to the US with the help of gifted land for the racetrack from his uncles, John and Henry Churchill. He formed the Louisville Jockey Club, which raised funds to build a permanent home for horse racing. The track eventually becomes known as “Churchill Downs.”
The First Kentucky Derby was held on May 17th, 1875, with fifteen thoroughbreds racing the initial 1.5 mile run. The winner that year was Aristides, who ran in front of 10,000 spectators.
In 1896, the race was shortened to 1.25 miles, after concerns that the original 1.5 mile duration was too long for a thoroughbred.
Although the date was originally decided every year, in the 1930’s it became the first Saturday of May.
The winning horses received a garland of roses at the finish line. This helped coin the phrase “Run For The Roses” in 1925 during a radio broadcast. In the 1930’s, the rose garland placed over the winning horse was all red, and has been red since then. Over 500 red roses are sewn onto a big green blanket that is draped over the neck of the winner. The red rose was adopted as the official flower of the Derby in 1904.
Celebrities were invited in the beginning as well as “society ladies,” to change the image of horse racing from one of ill repute to a place to be seen. The tradition continues today as many A-List stars attend every year.
What’s With The Big Hats?
They’re not just for royal weddings.
In the early days of the Derby, organizers wanted the race to be a social affair, and attendees were encouraged to wear their best outfits. At the time, hats (and gloves) were the norm, and word was spread to local women’s social clubs to wear their “finest.” Everyday wear at the time included hats, particularly for the more well-to-do women, who showed off their affluence on their heads. Present-day attendees continue the tradition with over-the-top hats that sometimes make the news, frequently adorned with roses.
Why The Mint Julep?
The origins of this drink are only speculation, although many believe it to be from Louisiana. Made with sugar, mint, water, ice, and of course, Kentucky bourbon, this southern favorite has become synonymous with the Kentucky Derby and a favorite in the Bluegrass State. For more than 70 years, it’s been the “official” cocktail of the Derby. When served at Churchill Downs, it’s only made with Early Times, and served in a silver or pewter cup.
Last year’s Derby and Triple Crown winner was Justify. Who will it be this year? Tune in, hang onto your hat, and find out.