Everything you wanted to know about the Kentucky Derby, but were afraid to ask

Photo by John Athayde via flickr

“The Greatest Two Minutes in Sports” is this weekend and I wanted to learn more about the traditions and history of America’s longest-running continual sporting event and how to decipher horse betting jargon.  I did some research and learned a few things that will hopefully help me hang with the big boys at my Derby party this weekend while I throw back some delicious minty cocktails.

The Kentucky Derby was first run in 1875 at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky and is held annually on the first Saturday in May.  The race is 1-1/4 miles long and is composed of up to 20 3-year-old thoroughbreds.  This year marks the 140th Kentucky Derby and is the first leg of the Triple Crown – followed by the Preakness and Belmont Stakes.  A horse has only one shot to win the Triple Crown because the Derby, Preakness and Belmont stakes is restricted to just 3-year-olds (apparently age is more than just a number).  If you want to show-off and win over your party crowd, here’s a fun fact.  Only 11 horses have won the Triple Crown and none since Affirmed in 1978, although many have come close.  50 horses have finished one win shy, including I’ll Have Another in 2012.

About the origins of those wacky Derby traditions.

1.  Mint juleps. The Kentucky whiskey and mint concoction was a popular drink at the Derby from its start. It became a staple, the legend goes, when a famous Polish actress, Helena Modjeska, ordered the drink at a pre-Derby breakfast at the track and loved it. Churchill Downs began serving it in its current souvenir glasses in the late 1930s, in part, because clubhouse patrons were stealing their regular glasses.

2.  Big hats. The ornate hats worn by women to the race is a relic of the past, a popular fashion at the Derby’s start and now almost a costume for today’s event. “It really goes back to England, and the Kentucky Derby was patterned after a race in England, the Epsom,” says Ronnie Dreistadt, a curator of education at the Kentucky Derby Museum. Nevertheless, it was used by race promoters to market the Kentucky Derby to women and make it a see-and-be-seen event.

3.  The roses. The beautiful blanket of 564 roses placed on the winning horse traces its roots to a strain of roses introduced to America in 1870s. Churchill Downs founder Meriwether Lewis Clark used them for decorations at a post-Derby party and by the 1890s, they became a prop in the post-race presentations, first as bouquet, then as a garland for the winning horse. Bill Curom, who went on to be the president of Churchill Downs, coined the term “The Run for the Roses” in 1925.

4.  “My Old Kentucky Home.” Stephen Collins Foster wrote the anthem in the 1850s, stirred by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” But it was not until the 1920s that it took off in popularity, when a mansion was thought to be identified as the song’s inspiration (though no evidence exists that Foster ever actually saw the house). Within a few years Winn replaced the National Anthem with “My Old Kentucky Home” to kick off the Derby, and today it is performed by the University of Louisville Marching Band.

Now, about the bets.  This part gets confusing, but I think I have the basics under my belt.  If you’re a rookie like me, to simplify things, there are two kinds of bets – betting on just one horse and betting on a few at once.

Win: This one’s easy.  Put your money on the horse you want to win.  Why not put a few bucks on the longshot?
Exacta: You have to pick the two top finishers.  You can “box” it, which means the top two horses can come in either order.  If you win, you’ll only get half the moolah, but as they say, “may the odds be ever in your favor”.
Trifecta: Top three finishers.  You get the idea.
Superfecta: If you’re really feeling lucky, try picking horses 1 through 4.  From what I gather, if you hit, you’ll be able to upgrade from that spot on the infield next year.

Phew, that was intense.  I think I’ll stick to what I do best, who wants to join me for a mint julep?  Speaking of mint juleps, here’s a recipe from Food & Wine for a fruitier version of the classic cocktail.

Blackberry Mint Julep
Blackberry-Mint Julep

Small ice cubes
1/4 cup blackberries, plus 1 blackberry for garnish
2 tablespoons mint leaves, plus 1 mint sprig for garnish
1 tablespoon sugar
1-1/2 ounces bourbon

Fill a rocks glass halfway with ice cubes. In a shaker, combine the 1/4 cup of blackberries, mint leaves, sugar, bourbon and 1/3 cup of ice cubes and shake well. Strain the drink into the glass through a coarse sieve, pressing on the solids. Garnish with the blackberry and mint sprig.

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