This weekend marks the 138th annual running of the Kentucky Derby and I’ll be making the two hour drive south to Louisville to take it in for the first time. That means that this week is going to be completely Kentucky Derby-focused. Let’s kick the week of with a few things you should know about the Kentucky Derby.
There’s More Than Just One Race
The Kentucky Derby isn’t just the one race you see on TV every year. In fact the Derby isn’t even the last race of the day. Derby Day racing kicks off at 10:30 and ten races take place before the Derby. And this doesn’t even include the 12 races ran the day before during the Kentucky Oaks.
The actual Kentucky Derby race is a 1 1/4 mile spectacle ran on a dirt track. The race was originally 1 1/2 miles but was changed in 1896. It serves as the initial race of the Triple Crown, followed by the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes. Only three-year-olds are allowed to run in the race. For the 2012 race, the winner takes home $1,425,000 of the $2 million purse.
Birthed on a trip to England and France, the Kentucky Derby is the longest continuously running sporting event in the United States. When Col. M. Lewis Clark, grandson of explorer William Clark, returned from his trip, he formed the Louisville Jockey Club in order to host races that showcased the area’s rich breeding history. On May 17, 1875, the track opened with four races and Aristides won the inaugural Kentucky Derby.
The Garland of Roses
The Kentucky Derby is also known as the “Run for the Roses” due to the garland of roses presented to the winner. The rose garland was first presented to Ben Brush in 1896. Pink and white roses comprised the garland; the red rose did not become the official flower until 1904. Big Brown, winner of the 2008 Derby, had a hatred of flowers and did not wear the rose garland.
The Twin Spires
One of the most iconic images of the Derby is that of the Twin Spires atop Churchill Downs. Constructed in 1895 the Spires were not originally part of the design but the draftsman felt something needed to be added. Thus, the hexagonal spires became a part of Derby lore.
My Old Kentucky Home
As the horses make their from the paddock to the starting gate, the familiar refrain of “My Old Kentucky Home” can be heard being played by the University of Louisville Marching Band. Composed around 1852 by Stephen Foster, the official state song of Kentucky is believed to have first been played in 1921. The song was likely first played as the horses were led to the starting gate during the 1930 Derby.
The trophy in its current form has been around since the 50th running in 1924. While trophies were presented on occasion during the first 50 years, there was not an annual one until then. The trophy is gold to signify the golden anniversary of the Derby when it was first awarded. Jeweled embellishments have been added to commemorate each 25 year anniversary since. The only other change made to to flip the upside down horseshoe right side up in 1999. According to lore an upside down horseshoe will cause all the luck to run out. The trophy, crafted by New England Sterling since 1975, is 22-inches tall and weighs 56 ounces sans the jade base and is believed to be the only solid trophy annually awarded to the winner of a major American sporting event.