The Kentucky Derby is the longest-running sports event in the United States. It has been held every year since it started in 1875. Unsurprisingly, it’s home to many long-lived traditions and customs. These traditions fascinate spectators, drawing more fans to Churchill Downs every season.
These traditions are also deeply rooted in American history. Knowing these traditions will help you appreciate the upcoming race even more.
Mint Julep was officially called the Kentucky Derby’s official drink since 1938, but it has been served in the race even before that. It was once a medicinal drink to cure upset stomachs and sore throats. Though there is no historical account to back how the mint julep got associated with the Kentucky Derby, some say that it was a popular drink in the South around that period. Being part of the period’s culture, it naturally found its way on the race track and became part of the derby’s tradition. Many also claim that Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr., the founder of the Derby, planted mint leaves in 1875 after finding the track.
Both men and women love this drink. Its traditional ingredients are bourbon, mint, sugar, water, and crushed ice. It is typically served in cool-looking glasses with the name of the Kentucky Derby’s winner. The audience can take these glasses home as a souvenir.
Suits and dresses aren’t Derby’s official outfit, but the audience loves to wear them during the celebration. It’s a sophisticated affair attended by affluent spectators, so women would wear their best with the finest dresses they have. Meanwhile, men would don themselves with complementary suits, shoes, and hats. Lighter colors are the trend among racegoers.
Legend says this tradition started when Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. instructed sophisticated women in form-fitting dresses to recruit the upper class to the track. Today, the tradition continues, and whether they admit it or not, men love the fashion show too!
It’s not called the “Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports” for nothing. To make the most of the short duration of the race, spectators would wager on the horses. This isn’t something new. Kentucky derby picks were a thing even before the Kentucky Derby was inaugurated. The most common bets are on-site win, place, and show. You can also go for exotic bets like an exacta, quinella, trifecta, superfecta, and super hi-five.
The tradition of wearing fancy hats dates back to when the Kentucky Derby started. The reputation of the Derby didn’t start great. Many thought it was immoral, so Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. asked the high-society women to invite their friends over for a picnic. This move worked and changed the poor reputation of the event. Wealthy racegoers flocked to the race track and started the tradition of fancy attires with extravagant bright hats. In the 1960s, massive, more visible hats were a trend among racegoers. Since then, the tradition of wearing big vibrant hats has carried on.
The Kentucky Derby is dubbed “Run for the Roses” for a specific reason. The winning horse in the Derby is draped with a literal garland composed of 400 roses. It all started in 1896 when Ben Brush, the jockey who mounted the winning horse, received white and pink roses. The following year, the winner received a garland of red roses, making it the official flower of the Derby in 1904. The design of the garland that we see in the Derby today was first used in 1932.
The infield is the loudest and biggest frat party in the world. It’s a long stretch of the field in the track where people gather to party. The drinking starts early at 8 am. There you can see many people in crazy outfits, ready to rave with the wild crowd.
Of course, there’s a dedicated space for the elite in the Kentucky Derby. The Millionaire’s Row is where celebrities and prominent individuals watch the race. It was introduced in 1966 to serve as an exclusive space for wealthy individuals and to separate them from the wild crowd in the infield. Tickets to the Millionaire’s Row cost at least over $1,000, making it a premier spot for the highest class in society.
The Kentucky Derby trophy isn’t as grand as one would expect in the longest-running sports event in the world. While the size isn’t that impressive, it’s made of 20- and 14-carat gold, making it one of the most expensive trophies awarded in sports events. It weighs 56 ounces and stands 22 inches tall. It has an 18-karat gold horse and a rider on top of the trophy. It also has a horseshoe-designed handle, the signature design since 1975.
At the end of each game, the University of Louisville marching band plays “My Old Kentucky Home.” Locals and the rest of the crowd would sing along, giving you goosebumps as you witness thousands of people swaying and singing out loud to the band’s hymn.
More than being a world-renowned horse racing event showcasing the most promising thoroughbreds of their generation, the Kentucky Derby is a historically-rich event that has become part of American culture. These Derby traditions have helped shape American culture, continuously contributing to the prestige and reputation of the country’s horseracing industry.