6 Kentucky Derby Basics to Make You an Expert

Are you gearing up to host a Kentucky Derby party, or perhaps you’ve snagged an invite to one? Whether you’re a first-timer or a seasoned enthusiast, navigating the Derby’s rich tapestry of traditions can be a tad overwhelming. Fear not! Let’s delve into these 6 Kentucky Derby essentials to transform you from a newcomer to a seasoned railbird in a flash.

1. The Race

Since its inaugural run on May 17, 1875, the Kentucky Derby has evolved into a cornerstone event in American horse racing. Held annually on the first Saturday of May at Churchill Downs racetrack in Louisville, Ky., this prestigious race spans 1-1/4 miles of dirt track—an endurance test for even the most seasoned steeds.

Fun Fact: The Derby has deviated from its traditional May slot only twice: in 1945 and 2020, due to constraints on large public gatherings.

2. The Horses

Only 3-year-old thoroughbred horses have the honor of gracing the Derby track, with a limited field of 20 contenders. Earning a spot in the race demands impressive performances in preceding events. Colts and fillies alike vie for glory, with bloodlines often playing a pivotal role in their racing prowess.

Fun Fact: Throughout Derby history, three fillies have clinched victory: Regret (1915), Genuine Risk (1980), and Winning Colors (1988).

3. The Crown

Dubbed the “First Jewel of the Triple Crown,” the Kentucky Derby kicks off a trio of prestigious races. Following the Derby, contenders aim for triumph in The Preakness Stakes (held two weeks later in Baltimore) and The Belmont Stakes (three weeks after the Preakness, in Long Island, NY). As of 2024, a mere 13 horses have claimed all three crowns in a single year.

Fun Fact: The longest gap between Triple Crown champions spans 37 years, from Affirmed in 1978 to American Pharoah in 2015.

4. The Flowers

Embraced as “The Run for the Roses,” the Derby tradition of adorning the winner with a blanket of roses traces back to 1883. Today, the victor’s circle sees an opulent display of over 500 crimson blooms, symbolizing the pinnacle of racing excellence.

Fun Fact: Weighing in at approximately 40 lbs, the winner’s rose blanket is a sight to behold.

5. The Drink

Anticipating the trend by a century, the Derby introduced its signature libation: the mint julep. This refreshing concoction of mint and ice-cold bourbon pays homage to the Derby’s founder, Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., whose affinity for the drink sparked a beloved tradition.

Quick Tip: Simplify the mint julep preparation by opting for mint-infused simple syrup, sparing yourself the hassle of muddling.

6. The Horse That’s the GOAT

In the realm of horse racing, debates on the greatest often ensue. Yet, when it comes to Derby dominance, one name reigns supreme: Secretariat. Affectionately dubbed “Big Red,” this legendary steed shattered records in the 1973 Derby, setting a time of 1 minute, 59.40 seconds—a feat yet to be surpassed.

Fun Fact: Secretariat’s legacy extends beyond the racetrack, as his lineage includes descendants like American Pharoah (2015) and Justify (2018), both Triple Crown victors.

Armed with these essentials, you’re primed to immerse yourself in the splendor of one of America’s most cherished sporting events. So, pick your contender, raise a toast with a mint julep, and prepare to witness history in the making—you might just witness the birth of the next racing legend!

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