Every year, on the first Saturday in May the city of Louisville, Kentucky gets 15 minutes of fame thanks to (give or take) 20 thoroughbreds. The Kentucky Derby is the first leg of the Triple Crown of horse racing and attracts thousands of visitors to historic Churchill Downs.
Derby Day consists of many horse races, not just the most famous race which has occurred every year since 1875. The Kentucky Derby race however, is a mile and a quarter, or about a lap and a half around the dirt track. Secretariat holds the record for the fastest Kentucky Derby ever run in 1973, with a time of one minute and 59.4 seconds.
Now, I have 19 years of Derby experience to share, so here are some key terms associated with the Derby defined by yours truly.
- Kentucky Derby Festival: Two weeks before Derby Day Louisville erupts with Derby excitement. How much excitement? The largest fireworks display in the Western Hemisphere sized excitement. Thunder Over Louisville is an all-day air show followed by a 40 minute fireworks show to celebrate the upcoming Derby. Hundreds of thousands of people flock to the waterfront of the Ohio River on both the Kentucky and Indiana sides to watch. The rest of the two weeks are packed with other festivities such as a steam boat race between the Belle of Louisville and a much slower competitor, a million dollar hole in one contest at a local golf course, a chow wagon, a hot air-balloon glow and race, a great bed race (where mattresses are put on wheels and decorated then pushed around a track), a wine fest, a beer fest, the Pegasus Parade, and many more. To attend one or more of these events, one must wear a Pegasus Pin. These can be purchased at grocery stores and other locations for a mere $5. Open the package to find a gold Pegasus Pen and you win extra prizes! Each year there are a few different versions to collect and you never know which one you will get!Below is a snapshot of the fireworks of Thunder Over Louisville.
- Churchill Downs/Twin Spires: Race track located in Louisville, Kentucky. The Twin Spires refers to the two identical spires atop the Grandstand that distinguish the Churchill Downs racetrack. In addition to being beautiful and iconic, the spires like to light up for situations involving the colors red and blue. Before the very important and hotly contested NCAA Sweet 16 Tournament game this past March between the Louisville Cardinals (red) and Kentucky Wildcats (blue), the one spire reflected red light and the other blue. They also were lit red and blue for the USA Soccer game a few weeks ago versus Belgium. The Spires are obviously very passionate about sports, but in a town like Louisville, who isn’t?
Below is the main entrance to Churchill Downs.
- Thoroughbred: a race horse. These bad boys are bred specifically for racing all over the country. Thoroughbreds that run in the Kentucky Derby are around three years old.
- Fillies: female race horses, or mares. They get their own race the day before the Derby, but also can run in the Derby.
- Oaks Day: the day before the derby. This day is dedicated to breast cancer awareness and the Susan G. Kohman Foundation, and everyone wears pink—even the men! Breast cancer survivors are honored as they walk around the track before the Oaks race takes place. Oaks day is a city-wide holiday! Schools in Louisville are closed and the infield of Churchill Downs is a popular hangout for teens and young adults. The actual running of the Oaks takes place around 6pm and the winner receives a trophy and a Garland of Lillies, (I’ve seen the garland being made and it is amazing how big it is, how many flowers go into it, and how beautiful it turns out to be!).
- Derby hats: It is very traditional for women to wear specialized hats to match their dresses to the Oaks and Derby. Their hats can be customized and made by hand or bought in many department stores around the area. They range from small to gigantic and are always fun to look at.
- Mint Julep: the official drink of the Kentucky Derby is made with bourbon, mint and a sweetener. It is served in a special glass.
- Garland of Roses: just like the Garland of Lillies goes to the Oaks winner, a garland of red roses is presented to the winner of the Derby by the Governor of Kentucky. The garland is also made in Louisville a few days before the race. Each rose is equipped with a small tube of water and is hand placed into the garland. You can also go watch it being made!
- My Old Kentucky Home: Kentucky’s official song composed by Stephan A. Foster is played by the University of Louisville marching band before the “Running of the Roses” (a nickname for the Derby). While writing this article, I asked my dad what his favorite part of the Derby was, and he said “My Old Kentucky Home”. Kentucky residents usually know the words, but the lyrics are displayed on the big screen in Churchill Downs and on TV for the rest of the country to sing along. Thanks NBC! Weep no more my lady, oh weep no more toooooday!
- Bugler: This guy is a local celebrity in Louisville. He comes out before each race that takes place at Churchill Downs and plays a tune on the bugle, calling the horses “to the post”. I could hum this tune in my sleep I’ve heard it so much.
- Jockeys: people who ride the horses. They are typically built very small in height and weight and wear colorful “silks” to distinguish themselves during the race.
- Infield: the large area inside the oval of the racetrack. It is used as a general admission section and is a popular hang-out space for the Oaks and Derby. A few years ago on Derby Day it rained pretty hard, and so the infield became the unofficial mud sliding center of Churchill Downs. In the picture below, you can see the infield surrounded by the track.
- Millionaire’s Row: the opposite of the infield. This section of Churchill Downs consists of luxurious box seating and private bars, dining and betting areas. On Derby day this is a typical spot for celebrities to frolic and be celebrities.
- Triple Crown: the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes. All three races are ran within the span of six weeks. If a single horse wins all of these three races in the same year he/she is considered to have won the Triple Crown. The last horse to win all three was Affirmed in 1978.
This year’s winner: California Chrome. He also won the Preakness Stakes three weeks after the Derby, but unfortunately did not win the Belmont, costing him the Triple Crown. Maybe next year! Below is California Chrome with the winning garland of roses.
Surprisingly this is not even close to all of the information on the Kentucky Derby Festival or thoroughbred racing. It is a historic and storied sport that has put Kentucky on the map. So next year, on May 2, 2015, I hope you turn on your TV around 6pm and recognize the importance of the race to Louisville. It is a Kentuckian’s favorite day of the year, even if you aren’t able to attend the race!
P.S. This post is being used strictly for entertainment purposes based on my own knowledge of the Kentucky Derby. I have cited all the photographs used in the article.