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Fun at the Kentucky Derby


The Kentucky Derby has always been a mega event but the focus is not just on the race itself but everything surrounding the Derby. From the massive hats on the ladies attending, to betting on Kentucky Derby, to the blanket of roses that is draped around the neck of the winning horse, you can sometimes forget about the two minutes it takes to run the race.

If you are planning on hitting up Churchill Downs in Louisville for the first Saturday in May this year, this is what your itinerary is going to look like (unless you get sidetracked after having a few too many mint juleps).

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The Hats

To some, the hats are almost as important as Kentucky Derby betting. You’ll find many “Best and Worst of…” lists on mainstream sites concerning the fashion and more specifically, the kentucky derby hats, with a tiny blurb about who actually won the race. The hats have gotten larger and flashier throughout the years, and they can cost a pretty penny. Just make sure you don’t end up sitting behind someone wearing one.

The Partying on the Infield

Going to the infield at Churchill Downs on Derby day can be as wild as the infield at Talladega on the day of a NASCAR Sprint Cup race (and most likely, much of the same clientele). It is a party from start to finish and the only place you can sit is on the ground. Just keep in mind that you probably don’t want to be there if the weather forecast suggests rain. Not to worry, though, the alcohol will probably have you without a care in the world. A word of the wise: while the infield is a great party zone, it’s not the greatest place to be for viewing the actual race.

The Singing of “My Old Kentucky Home”

“My Old Kentucky Home” was written by Stephen Foster around 1852, about 23 years before the first Derby in 1875. Around 1930, it was played at Churchill Downs as the Kentucky Derby contenders were paraded around the track prior to the race. It is usually played by the marching band from the University of Louisville. The song is also the official song of the state of Kentucky.

Millionaire’s Row

This is exactly what it sounds like, and the complete opposite of the infield at Churchill Downs. This is where the rich and famous congregate to watch the race, but more importantly, see and be seen and of course, compare the size of their hats. Regular folk will not find themselves in this part of Churchill Downs, unless they can manage to evade the tight security.

Mint Juleps

The official alcoholic drink of the Kentucky Derby has long been a tradition in the southern United States, and it is made of mint leaf (although spearmint is the mint of choice in Kentucky), bourbon, sugar and water. It is an excellent drink on a nice, hot day at Churchill Downs, but it can get dangerous, especially the sugar, which dehydrates you, although the water balances it out a little. No one really knows when it started, but it has been around the Derby since 1938 and comes in souvenir glasses. But if you are in Millionaire’s Row, you might have a mint julep that costs around $1,000 and comes in a gold-plated cup. The straw is made of silver. No word on whether or not the cup gets on a horse and participates in the race as well.

Blanket of Roses

The rose is the official flower of the Kentucky Derby and has been since around 1883. The garland of roses started out as a gift to women after the race at a social gathering and evolved into a massive blanket of them for the winner, which is something that began around 1896.

When we say massive, we mean it: roughly 560 roses are used in creating the blanket for the winner (so that is where all the unsold Valentine’s Day roses are going). The blanket is put on the winning horse by the current Governor of the state of Kentucky. That jives with the rose theme as the Kentucky Derby is known as the ”Run for the Roses”, which is also a song written by pop/rock musician Dan Fogelberg that came in time for the 1982 edition of the Derby.

The Race

Yes, there is an actual race that takes place at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May and there really is no debate: when it comes to a cultural standpoint, there is no race bigger in the world of thoroughbred horse racing than the Kentucky Derby. Not even its cousins in the Triple Crown (the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes) or the Breeders’ Cup in November. The Kentucky Derby is the pinnacle of the careers of many horses, trainers, owners and breeders. It is the biggest race of the year in terms of attendance and once a horse wins the Kentucky Derby, the talk of winning the Triple Crown (which no horse has done since Affirmed in 1978) begins. It gets publicity on ESPN and other than this race or the Triple Crown, they never talk about horse racing.

The race goes all the way back to 1875 and has always been run at Churchill Downs. It is always run on dirt on a track that bends to the left, and there is a distance of 1 ¼ miles, or 10 furlongs. It is for three-year-old horses and even though it is comprised of most colts, you will get the occasional filly entered in this race instead of its sister race, the Kentucky Oaks, which is run the day before the Derby. Only three fillies have ever won the Kentucky Derby, most recently in 1988.

The Kentucky Derby is called “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports” and those who bet on Kentucky Derby know why: it’s because that is roughly how long it takes to run it. The record was set by the legendary Secretariat back in 1973 when he started his Triple Crown run with a blistering 1:59.4. Only Monarchos’ 1:59.97 in 2001 has broken the two-minute mark. Of course, horse racing is a big betting attraction and the longest shot on the Kentucky Derby odds to ever win came back in 1913, when Donerail surprised everyone as a 91/1 longshot.