Very few sporting events have as much history and tradition as the annual Kentucky Derby at The Churchill Downs in Louisville. This year, Saturday, May 6th, marks the 149th year of the greatest two minutes in sports, where 20 three-year-old thoroughbreds will make the run for the roses. The Derby, a Grade I stakes race, is the first race of the American Triple Crown, followed by the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes, and a horse must win all three of these races to clinch the Triple Crown title. Millions flock to Louisville and their closest televisions, donning their fanciest hats and frostiest Mint Juleps each year to watch the historic race, which, to its credit, has remained uninterrupted since its inaugural event in 1875.
The Kentucky Derby was the brainchild of Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr., grandson of the famed William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804. Inspired by his travels abroad to England and France, home to the Epsom Derby and the Grand Prix de Paris Longchamps, respectively, Clark endeavored to bring a similar spectacle to the United States. He returned to the States and consulted with his uncles John and Henry Churchill, who then gifted him the land onto which he developed the racetrack and formally organized the Louisville Jockey Club with a group of local race fans. The club fundraised to build the permanent racetrack, and on May 17th, 1875, they sponsored the very first Kentucky Derby.
The track was officially named the Churchill Downs in 1883, and throughout its history, the Kentucky Derby has occurred each year, even during revolutionary events such as The Great Depression and both World Wars. Though the Derby and Churchill Downs have undergone various changes throughout their history, the integrity of the race has remained the same.
This spectacle continues to deliver some of the most legendary equine performances of all time, such as that of Secretariat, who in 1973 won the race with the fastest time to date – 1:59.40 minutes – and later went on to secure the Triple Crown ending a 25-year drought that began in 1948. To this day, his record-setting times in all three races have yet to be broken. The last Triple Crown winner, Justify, came in 2018.
If you aren’t going to be present at Churchill Downs this year for the 149th Kentucky Derby, make sure to tune in to the television on Saturday, May 6th with an icy Mint Julep in hand and watch the most exciting two minutes in American sports. For more information about this year’s race, and to place your bets, visit KentuckyDerby.com, and keep reading to learn more about some of the Kentucky Derby traditions.
As rich as its history, the Kentucky Derby is steeped in traditions that have endured the tests of time and become synonymous with the race and its home at the Churchill Downs.
The Garland of Roses
Each year, the winner of the Kentucky Derby is draped in a garland of more than 400 red roses sewn onto a green satin backing. Dubbed by New York sports columnist Bill Corum in 1925 as the “Run for the Roses,” the flowers first appeared in the race in 1896 when the winner, Ben Brush, was presented with an arrangement of white and pink roses. Later in 1904, the red rose became the official flower of the Derby, but the garland as we know it today did not emerge until 1932 – the race’s 58th running. The garland is adorned with the seal of the Commonwealth, and on the other end, the Twin Spires, and the number of the race’s current renewal. Symbolizing the struggle and the endurance of the heart necessary to arrive in the Derby’s Winner Circle, each garland is adorned with a “crown” of roses, green ferns, and ribbon, with one upward- pointing rose in the center of the garland. Since 1987 the Kroger Company has been crafting the prestigious garland.
The Twin Spires
A landmark known worldwide; The Twin Spires of the Churchill Downs draws visitors from across the globe to the racetrack to photograph the iconic spires. Built in 1895, the spires were a concept brought forth by Joseph Dominic Baldez, a 24-year-old draftsman who was tasked with crafting the blueprints for Churchill Downs’ new grandstand. The spires were not initially included in Baldez’s drawings when designing the grandstand, but he decided that the structure needed something more, and the idea for the Twin Spires was born. The hexagonal spires epitomize 19th-century architecture, and while Baldez designed many other structures in the city, the Twin Spires stand to this day as an honor to his work and memory.
The Longines Kentucky Oaks is a Grade I stakes race held on the Friday before the Kentucky Derby, and alongside the Derby, it is another one of the oldest sporting events in United States history. Also founded by Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. in 1875, the Kentucky Oaks is a race for three-year-old fillies, and each winner is presented with a garland blanket of lilies, which has earned the event’s nickname “Lilies for the Fillies.” The Kentucky Oaks has become a celebration of the ladies.
Attendees are asked to incorporate pink into their outfits in a show of advocacy and support for women’s health issues. At the event, a Survivors Parade is held, welcoming breast and ovarian cancer survivors to march on the historic racetrack before the running of the Kentucky Oaks, and since its inception, the Kentucky Oaks charitable initiative has raised more than a million dollars for women’s health advocacy. There is also a Longines Kentucky Oaks Fashion Contest where those dressed in their most elegant and creative outfits compete for a luxury timepiece. The official drink of the Kentucky Oaks is the Finlandia Oaks Lily, a colorful concoction of vodka, triple sec, sweet and sour mix, and cranberry juice.
If not Mint Juleps, the extravagant and colorful hats donned by race attendees are almost always what comes to mind when people think of the Kentucky Derby. Though this trend did not really start until the 1960s when the norms surrounding fashion began to loosen, Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. planted the seeds at the Kentucky Derby’s beginning. He had a vision for the events to be a high-class spectacle, like the horse races in Europe, and he recruited upper-class women to draw in his desired clientele to attend the race. Eventually, this became an opportunity for people to show off the latest in spring style, and women coordinated their hats, dresses, bags, shoes, and parasols specifically for the event. Over time the Derby became just as much about fashion as it did about horse racing, and when technology advanced, and televisions emerged, the outfits, and especially the hats, became even more extravagant. This year Louisville-based Master Milliner Jenny Pfanenstiel is the featured Milliner of the 149th Kentucky Derby. Pfanenstiel is a world-renowned milliner who embraces traditional millinery techniques, an art that dates back centuries, and if you visit Churchill Downs, you can view her permanent hat display.
The Winners Circle
When the races first started in 1875, the winners of The Run for the Roses would be led to a chalk dust circle on the racetrack where the winner’s presentation would take place. This practice continued until 1930, when officials moved the presentation to an area adjoining the Churchill Downs Clubhouse, and come 1938, there was finally an official presentation stand where each subsequent Kentucky Derby winner would be honored. This new stand featured an electric odds board, and in 1944 the winner’s circle was introduced to a meticulously landscaped horseshoe floral arrangement that still stands as the backdrop for the winning horse to be photographed. The winner of the Kentucky Derby receives a 14-karat gold trophy, and since 1975 New England Sterling in North Attleboro, MA, has been crafting the winner’s piece. The trophy is topped by an 18-karat gold horse and rider; it has horseshoe-shaped handles and an exquisite jade base. This is believed to be the only solid gold trophy awarded to the annual winner of an American sporting event.
The Mint Julep
While the Mint Julep became the Kentucky Derby’s official drink in 1939, it is likely that racegoers have been drinking the refreshing cocktail since the dawn of the Derby. Juleps have long been a staple of sophisticated society below the Mason- Dixon line since the early 1800s. Even before then, its origins lie in Persia’s ancient Sasanian Empire, somewhere around 224-651 AD. What started as a rosewater bath enjoyed by nobility called Gulab ( Persian for “rose water”) became an elixir of health for many who opted to drink it straight or incorporate it into other dishes. In the 9th century, it was prescribed as a medicine for shortness of breath and stomach ailments, and it eventually reached India through trade, where it was refined as an oil and became highly regarded in the Egyptian, Roman, and Byzantine Empires for its medicinal purposes and skin care benefits. Once it reached the Mediterranean, where mint grew in abundance, the popular leafy green replaced rose petals, and the name gulab transformed into the Arabic julab and Latin julapium. The beverage found its way to America in the 18th century, where the concoction of rum or brandy, honey, and muddled mint stuck around as a preventative medicine and an early morning energizer for hard-working farmers. As the applications of the julep continued to evolve, it found itself among high-society drinkers who could afford the luxury of ice and silver stemware.
By the early 1800s, bourbon had replaced brandy and rum as the spirit of choice among mint julep fans and Kentucky’s plentiful corn crops and limestone water made the state a thriving producer of bourbon, which continued to grow in popularity and price. Some of the earliest ties between Kentucky’s staples of racing and juleps date back to the 1820s when sterling silver julep cups were awarded to winning jockeys. The drink even gained the likes of Henry Clay, Kentucky’s senator, who introduced it to the nation’s capital in 1850. In 1938, Churchill Downs noticed that patrons were absconding with their decorated water glasses as souvenirs, and rather than crack down on this trend, they embraced it. Julep collector cups emerged the following year, as did the event’s embrace of the Mint Julep as their official drink.
According to Churchill Downs, nearly 120,000 Mint Juleps are served yearly over the two-day period that hosts the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby. The weekend breezes bye with the use of over 10,000 bottles of Old Forester Mint Julep Ready- to-Serve Cocktail, 1,000 pounds of freshly harvested mint, and 60,000 pounds of ice.
Want a taste of this Derby tradition at home? Try the official Old Forester Mint Julep recipe below.
The Old Forester Mint Julep Recipe
• 3 oz. Old Forester Mint Julep
• 0.75 oz. Simple Syrup
• 8 — 10 mint leaves
• 3 mint sprigs, for garnish
Pack mint julep cup with crushed ice. In a mixing glass, combine bourbon, syrup, and mint leaves. Lightly bruise mint leaves with a muddler, strain contents into julep cup. Garnish with 3 generous sprigs of mint. *Make sure to slap mint and insert straw into ice near mint. Recipe from KentuckyDerby.com.