horse race

The Kentucky Derby

It’s for good reason that the world-famous Kentucky Derby is known as "The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports.” Held the first Saturday of May in Louisville, Kentucky, this thrilling horse race sees the fastest of 20 thoroughbreds complete the 1¼ mile course in around 120 seconds – all, that is, except the famous Secretariat (but more on that legendary steed later).

A cherished symbol of American thoroughbred horse racing, the Kentucky Derby has been captivating enthusiasts and newcomers for over a century with its rich history, it’s fascinating (and fun) traditions, as well as its eye-catching fashions.

The Early Years

racing horse portrait in action

The inspiration for the Kentucky Derby dates back to 1872 when Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr., grandson of famed explorer William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, found himself enjoying the then-already 100-year-old Derby in England. Spurred by what he saw here and in France soon after, he decided to establish a US equivalent of the prestigious horse races he’d witnessed.

To kick things off, Clark founded the Louisville Jockey Club and acquired land to construct what would become Churchill Downs. The inaugural Derby, held on May 17, 1875, drew an audience of about 10,000 people, a significant gathering for the time. The field of three-year-old horses was also impressive, consisting of 15 steeds including the first-ever winner, Aristides, who went on to be one of the most acclaimed racehorses of his generation.

As it grew in prestige, the event took on national significance, too, attracting the best jockeys and thoroughbreds from across the country. At the same time, numerous innovations were incorporated into the sport, most notably at Churchill Downs. It also began getting attention from the nation's elite, transforming it from a regional attraction to a national spectacle. By the early 20th century, the Kentucky Derby had become a place where the social elite could mingle with celebrities and politicians, adding further to its glamour and broadening its appeal. 

During the Great Depression and both World Wars, the country’s most famous race had become something of a unifying event that Americans from all walks of life were interested in, offering a respite, however brief, from hard times. The Kentucky Derby has been run every year since 1875, except for a brief period during World War II when it was postponed for safety concerns.

Churchill Downs

Five thoroughbred horses race past the finish line on a dirt track at Churchill Downs.

Churchill Downs, the heart and soul of the Kentucky Derby, opened in 1875 in time for that first race and has been an icon in Louisville ever since. Set at the time on 80 acres of rural land leased to Clark by the prominent Churchill family, after whom the facility was named, the venue has grown to 147 acres in size and has undergone numerous transformations in order to now accommodate up to 165,000 spectators.

The most famous architectural feature of Churchill Downs is undoubtedly its iconic twin spires. Designed by Joseph Dominic Baldez in 1895, they serve as an enduring symbol of the Derby and are instantly recognizable. In 1902, the track introduced its first pari-mutuel wagering machines, revolutionizing the betting process and setting a standard adopted by racetracks across the country. Other innovations such as the starting gate in 1930, a public address system in 1937, and the photo finish camera in 1948 all helped cement the Derby’s place as a pioneering event in American (if not world) horse racing.

The first night race at Churchill Downs took place in 1994, ushering in a new era for the historic track. Since then, the venue has continued to evolve with the addition of luxury suites, expanded betting options, and the introduction of the Kentucky Derby Points System in 2013 which created a clear path for horses to earn a spot in the Derby starting gate.

Long Held Traditions

Homemade Kentucky Mint Julep with Sugar and Bourbon

The Kentucky Derby is also often referred to as "The Run for the Roses," a nickname that originates from one of the most beloved traditions of the event. After the victorious horse and jockey cross the finish line, a blanket of red roses is draped over both, a unique tradition dating back to 1883 when New York socialite E. Berry Wall presented roses to the winning jockey. Red roses became the official flower of the Derby soon after.

Another time-honored tradition is the playing of the tune My Old Kentucky Home as the horses step onto the track for the parade before the race. Written by Stephen Foster in 1853, it has become an anthem for the state and the Derby. It’s especially stirring when the spectators join in and sing along, creating a poignant and emotional moment that still brings tears to the eyes of many.

Then there’s the imbibing of one Kentucky’s best-known cocktails, the mint julep. An iced drink consisting of bourbon (Kentucky’s whiskey), mint, sugar, and water, these delicious spring drinks are served in a collectible glass and have been refreshing Derby attendees since the early 20th century. 

Fashion Statements

Elegant hats and fancy attire at the horse races.

The Kentucky Derby is as much a fashion spectacle as it is a thrilling sporting event, with a long-standing tradition of elegant and extravagant fashion choices on display. Both men and women embrace the opportunity to showcase their style and creativity through their attire, often incorporating unique and bold accessories, particularly hats. 

In fact, the tradition of donning elaborate hats has become a signature element of Derby fashion, with attendees competing for the most innovative and eye-catching designs. This tradition is believed to have originated from the fashion trends of the late 19th century, when women's hats were a prominent feature of their outfits and has since evolved into a beloved aspect of the Derby experience.

The Kentucky Derby presents an opportunity for women to embrace their inner Southern belle, with graceful, elegant dresses being a popular choice. Flowy, pastel-colored dresses, often accented with delicate patterns or floral prints, create a romantic and whimsical aesthetic. Wide-brimmed hats adorned with feathers, ribbons, or floral arrangements add a touch of drama and elegance to the overall ensemble. Many women also opt for more contemporary interpretations, incorporating bold colors, unique silhouettes, and modern accessories while still maintaining the essence of Derby fashion.

Men aren’t left out and usually opt for a more refined and traditional approach. Suits in classic colors such as navy, gray, or seersucker stripes are popular choices, paired with a crisp dress shirt and a colorful bow tie. A well-tailored vest or waistcoat adds a touch of sophistication, and a carefully selected pocket square completes the look, topped off with a classic fedora or boater hat.

Kentucky Derby Alumni

Bronze Secretariat sculpture designed by Edwin Bogucki at the Kentucky Horse Park.

Over the years, the Kentucky Derby has been won by many remarkable horses, some of them going on to win the coveted Triple Crown, which also includes the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes.

Notable past winners that have left a lasting impact on the sport and attracted horse race fans from around the world include: 

  • Secretariat (1973): Still holding the record for the fastest time at the Derby (a fraction of a second under two minutes), Secretariat's performance remains one of the most impressive in horse racing history.
  • Affirmed (1978): The last horse to win the Triple Crown for 37 years until American Pharoah achieved the feat in 2015.
  • American Pharoah (2015): His victory revived interest in the possibility of a Triple Crown champion, which he went on to become.
  • Justify (2018): Winning the Triple Crown with only six career races, Justify emerged as one of the most unexpected and exciting winners in recent years. 

The Final Word

The Kentucky Derby continues to be a significant emblem of equestrian excellence and a key component of American cultural heritage. With each passing year, it not only celebrates top-tier horse racing but also encapsulates a festival of tradition, fashion, and history, all set against the backdrop of the magnificent Churchill Downs. This blend of sport, style, and celebration ensures that the Derby remains an anticipated event that’s viewed by millions around the world each year.

Whether you’re drawn by the competitive horse racing, the vibrant social scene, or the simple charm of a longstanding tradition, the Kentucky Derby offers an enriching experience that resonates long after those thundering hooves have crossed the finish line.


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