Kentucky Derby

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Related to Kentucky Derby: Preakness

Kentucky Derby

Type of Holiday: Sporting
Date of Observation: First Saturday in May
Where Celebrated: Louisville, Kentucky
Symbols and Customs: Fancy Hats, Mint Julep, Red Roses


One of the top sporting events in the United States, the horse race known as the Kentucky Derby has been held at Churchill Downs racetrack in Louisville, Kentucky, since 1875. It was originally modeled on England's Epsom Derby, and the stylish clothes and parties associated with the race represent a deliberate attempt to recreate the social atmosphere of the English derby. The Kentucky Derby is unquestionably the most important social event of the year in Louisville, as evidenced by the more than 10,000 parties held there during Derby week.

Kentucky has a long tradition of horse racing and horse breeding. With its relatively mild climate, rich vegetation, and bluegrass meadows, Kentucky offers the ideal environment for raising thoroughbred horses. The first horse races in the state were held in Lexington in 1787, and the first jockey club was organized ten years later. Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. established Churchill Downs (named after the family that owned the land on which the track stands) as the home of the Louisville Jockey Club, and he served as the track's president from 1875 until 1894. He offered the Kentucky Derby as part of the Churchill Downs program, confining the race to three-year-old thoroughbreds carrying weight not in excess of 126 pounds.

On the day of the first Kentucky Derby, Colonel Clark gave a Derby breakfast for his friends-a custom that is still popular today. As soon as the race is over, the owner of the winning horse is invited to a private party given by the president of Churchill Downs, where he or she sips a MINT JULEP from a special sterling silver cup decorated with a wreath of roses (see RED ROSES ) and a replica of a thoroughbred horse's shoe, authentic in every detail. The cup later becomes part of the collection of cups on display at the Downs.

The race is usually run in slightly over two minutes, although in 1964, Northern Dancer was the first to win the Derby in two minutes flat. The great Secretariat, fondly known as Big Red, is still the only horse to run the Derby in less than two minutes-although only fractions of a second less. Ridden by jockey Ron Turcotte, Secretariat then went on to win the Triple Crown, which means that he also won the Belmont Stakes (run in June at Belmont Park, near New York City) and the Preakness (run in late May at the Pimlico Race Course near Baltimore). Only a horse that has won all three races in a single year, as Secretariat did in 1973, qualifies as a Triple Crown winner.

Although the race takes only a couple of minutes, the festivities surrounding it go on for the better part of a week and include parades, a steamboat race on the Ohio River, and countless dinner parties and balls.


Fancy Hats

In the late 1800s, it was customary for women to wear hats while attending social events. The Kentucky Derby's early runnings were thought to be social affairs as much as sporting events, and women dressed in their finest. While ladies' dress hats are less commonplace today, the most outlandish, festooned, and adorned hats are still flaunted at the Derby.

Mint Julep

How the drink known as the mint julep came to be so closely associated with the Kentucky Derby is not really known. The julep has been a Kentucky tradition since before the Civil War, and most Kentuckians pride themselves on their own special recipes. The basic ingredients are fresh-picked mint, sugar, and Kentucky bourbon, served over crushed ice in a frosted silver cup or souvenir Derby glass. The drink symbolizes southern hospitality and social grace, both of which are on display throughout Derby week.

Red Roses

Since 1932, it has been a Derby tradition for a group of Louisville women to sew hundreds of red rosebuds into a blanket to be worn by the winning horse. A wreath of red roses is also placed on the horse's neck in the winners' circle-an event that takes place in front of more than 150,000 spectators and over twenty million tuned in via television and radio worldwide. Both are symbolic of victory, much like the victory wreath that crowns the winner of the BOSTON MARATHON.


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Churchill Downs

Kentucky Derby Festival
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009

Kentucky Derby

First Saturday in May
The Kentucky Derby is the greatest and most glamorous horse race in America, run since 1875 in Louisville, Ky. Also known as the Run for the Roses because of the garland of roses draped on the winning horse, it is a one-and-one-quarter-mile race for three-year-old thoroughbreds and is the first race in the Triple Crown; the others are the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes. The site of the race is hallowed Churchill Downs, the track known for its twin spires, built in 1895.
The race is usually run in slightly over two minutes, but in 1964, Northern Dancer was the first to win the Derby in two minutes flat. In 1973, the great Secretariat, fondly known as Big Red, won in 1:59 2/5. That was the only time the Derby was raced in less than two minutes until Monarchos clocked in at 1:59.97 in 2001. Ridden by Ron Turcotte, Secretariat then went on to take the Triple Crown, exploding from the pack to win the Belmont by an unprecedented 31 lengths.
The Derby took its name from the English horse race that was started in 1780 by the 12th Earl of Derby, and Kentuckians hoped to duplicate the social panache of the Epsom Derby ( see Derby Day). They did, in a different way. The Derby became Louisville's major social occasion of the year; women to this day wear their most stylish hats to the racetrack, and there are numerous lavish Derby breakfasts and parties.
Traditional food includes Kentucky ham and beaten biscuits. And, of course, the Derby wouldn't be the Derby without mint juleps, the bourbon-and-mint drink served in cold silver julep cups or in special iced commemorative glasses at the track. Parties are not confined to Louisville; throughout the country and the world, Derby parties are held to watch the race on television. Stephen Foster's "My Old Kentucky Home," the official state song, is played as the horses parade to the post, and spectators in Louisville and far away stand and sing and (sometimes) dab their eyes.
Attendance at Churchill Downs is usually 120,000 to 130,000 people—most of them watching what they can from the infield and a select few, often including royalty, from Millionaires Row high in the clubhouse.
Derby Day is the finale of the 10-day Kentucky Derby Festival—a series of events that include a sternwheel steamboat race on the Ohio River, a Pegasus parade, fireworks, concerts, and a coronation ball.
Kentucky Derby Festival
1001 S. Third St.
Louisville, KY 40203
Churchill Downs
700 Central Ave.
Louisville, KY 40208
502-636-4400; fax: 502-636-4554
AmerBkDays-2000, p. 338
AnnivHol-2000, p. 93
FolkAmerHol-1999, p. 222
GdUSFest-1984, p. 63
HolSymbols-2009, p. 441
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.

Kentucky Derby

classic annual race in Louisville. [Am. Cult.: Brewer Dictionary, 516]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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