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April 24, 2019

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A beginner’s guide to watching the Kentucky Derby

South Point Kentucky Derby native

The Kentucky Derby, dubbed the “most exciting two minutes in sports,” is packed with tradition, culture and over-the-top customs. The benchmarks of the annual horse race are so distinct, they are revered and celebrated far beyond Louisville city limits.

Many of the traditions date to the early days of the race in the late 1800s and have held strong since. If you’re new to the spectacle or simply are curious about how the race works and how such practices came to be, here is everything you need to know heading into Kentucky Derby weekend.

A rich history

The Kentucky Derby began in 1875, making it the single longest-running sporting event in the country.

Meriwether Lewis Clark created the race after founding Churchill Downs Racetrack in Louisville. He was the grandson of William Clark, of Lewis and Clark expedition fame.

The race is the first of three that compose the Triple Crown. Held just weeks apart, the second is the Preakness in Baltimore and the third is Belmont Stakes in New York.

Only 12 horses have won the Triple Crown. The most recent was American Pharaoh in 2015, breaking a 37-year dry spell since the previous Triple Crown winner.

The lucky contestants

20 horses compete in the Kentucky Derby after qualifying through a series of 35 races leading up to the big one. The process is called the Road to the Kentucky Derby and is evaluated on a tiered point scale.

Thoroughbreds have only one chance to compete in their lifetime; all must be 3 years old at the time of the race.

The winner of this year’s Kentucky Derby will be awarded $2 million.

How do they come up with names?

If you’ve ever found yourself bemused by the horses’ names, you’re not alone. All names have to be approved by the Jockey Club and must adhere to a strict set of rules. The rules forbid names with numerical numbers (digits must be spelled out), names with horse-related terms and names that exceed 18 characters including spaces.

Some of the kookiest names among recent winners include California Chrome (2014), I’ll Have Another (2012), War Emblem (2002) and Go for Gin (1994).

Culture and customs

The hats: While developing plans for Churchill Downs, Meriwether Lewis Clark was inspired by British horse racing. At the time, races in the United States were a far cry from the noble and aristocratic affairs at racetracks across the Atlantic, but Clark sought to change that.

The Derby became a place for well-to-do revelers and high-class elegance. A benchmark became expensive fashion, often emulating that of British aristocrats. In the 1960s, women’s hats became even more extravagant as televised broadcasts of the race incentivized spectators to stand out in the crowd.

Mint juleps: The mint julep has been synonymous with the Kentucky Derby since the earliest years of the race. Churchill Downs began serving them in souvenir glasses in the late 1930s.

Today, Derby officials report that nearly 120,000 mint juleps are served at Churchill Downs over the two-day race weekend. That accounts for more than 10,000 bottles of Old Forester Mint Julep Ready-to-Serve Cocktail, 1,000 pounds of fresh mint leaves and 60,000 pounds of ice. That’s a lot of well-plied, well-dressed spectators.

Betting: Horse racing and gambling go hand-in-hand, and for more than a century, people have fought to keep it that way. While not everyone may want to wear an outlandish hat or know the words to “My Old Kentucky Home,” most people who watch the Derby will put some kind of a wager on their favorite horse.

Bets are placed at Churchill Downs itself, online, and in sportsbooks. Across the country at homegrown Kentucky Derby parties, it’s common to have small “betting” pools passed around for guests.

The song: The inaugural ballad of the Kentucky Derby, “My Old Kentucky Home,” is played triumphantly as the horses line up to the gate before the race. It almost always is played by the University of Louisville Marching Band as the crowd sings along.

Rose garland: The Garland of Roses that drapes the neck of the winning horse first appeared in 1896, and by 1904, the red rose became the official flower of the Derby. The garland is made of more than 400 roses sewn onto a satin base with a “crown” that represents the struggle and heart required to win the Derby.

Sources: Kentucky Derby, LA Times, NPR

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