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The Kentucky Derby or "The Run for the Roses" at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky is undoubtedly one of the most famous horse races in the US and the first leg of the Triple Crown. While these three races were not connected when the Derby began in 1875, the frequency with which Derby winners went on to race in the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes led to sports writer Charles Hatton coining the term "Triple Crown" in 1930. But the Derby is much more than just a horse race.
In its first year the Derby drew close to 10, 000 to watch 15 three-year-old thoroughbreds sprint the 1.5 mile course. The length of the course was shortened to 1.25 miles the following year. However, attendance has done nothing but rise. The derby draws an average of 150,000 guests each year. Among the spectators are residents, tourists, public figures and even royalty. The wealthy and elite sit in "Millionaires Row" where they can view the "most exciting two minutes in sports" while partaking in the festivities. Whereas, those that are in the infield are unable to see much of the race, but still come to enjoy the party and people watch.
Traditions at the Kentucky Derby
Fancy Derby Hats And Mint Juleps
As much a social event as a sporting event just about everyone has heard of some Derby traditions such as the mint julep. The mint julep is the official drink of the Derby. It is mint leaves, bourbon & simple syrup served over ice usually in a commemorative Derby glass. The hats are another well-known Derby tradition. Inside Churchill Downs hats are worn by both men and women as much for fashion as for good luck. Women typically crown themselves with wide-brimmed Southern-Belle style hats, while men's hats are usually reminiscent of the Roaring Twenties. The most important feature of a Derby hat is its originality. Out on the infield hats are not required, but are often still worn and come in all varieties.
Kentucky Derby Hats: Not Just For Women (But Mostly)
While both men and women traditionally wear hats, it's really the women that have the spot light. Sources differ as to whether the women should start their ensemble with the Kentucky Derby style hat or the dress, but either way -- it's the hat that is meant to be the highlight. They are typically wide brimmed and adorned with feathers, ribbons and/or flowers. This year, it is expected that we will see more fascinators amongst the hats due to their popularization by Kate Middleton.
Dress Attire At The Race
Dresses at the Derby range from sundresses to formal day suits, and have the goal of not detracting from the hat. Due to the wide range of weather that can be expected in Louisville a layered look is a wise choice. Women should also keep in mind that Churchill Downs has cobblestone pathways so while you might want to wear heels, bring a backup pair of flats. Men's fashion at the Derby is much simpler. In Churchill Downs suits are a must and the focus is on vibrant colors. Seersucker suits, brightly colored pants, and dress shirts in lively shades are all acceptable attire for the race.
Food At The Race
Another Derby tradition is eating Burgoo at the race. Burgoo is a thick stew made from beef, chicken, pork and vegetables. But Derby traditions are not just reserved for race day, oh no, there is a two-week festival leading up to the main event. The Kentucky Derby Festival kicks off with Thunder Over Louisville, the largest fireworks display in the world. It begins with a six hour acrobatic air show of over 100 planes and is followed by 28 minutes of fireworks. This opening ceremony for the Derby Festival began in 1990.
While it is the main event, the horse race isn't the only race in town for the Kentucky Derby. The Derby festival also has a Marathon and a miniMarathon for you athletes. The Marathon is 26.2 miles and the miniMarathon is 12 miles. These are two of the more popular Derby Festival events. The biggest and best, though, is the Pegasus Parade. It was the first event of the Festival and takes place on Broadway in downtown Louisville featuring floats, balloons, bands, celebrities and, of course, horses.
There is also steamboat and balloon races. The Steamboat Race takes place the Wednesday before the Derby on the Ohio River. The Great Balloon race is the culmination of the Great Balloon Festival, one of the newest Festival events taking place the weekend before the Kentucky Derby.
Kentucky Derby Social Events And Parties
It's not just these events or the race itself that draw out society's elite. There are numerous black-tie events, receptions and after-hours parties. Any Derby-going foodie will want to be at the Taste of Derby. This red carpet affair features tastes from national horse racing destinations. Chefs from these locations travel to Louisville to serve their signature fare paired with wines from their regions. All while guest get to rub shoulders with racing celebrities. This event is also a fundraiser with proceeds going to hunger relief organizations. Drawing about 1,000 guests annually this event has raised over $163,000 for local hunger relief efforts as well as for the regions of participating chefs.
For the past 25 years the night before the Derby has been marked by the Barnstable Brown Party. This black-tie celebration is hosted by the Doublemint twins Patricia Barnstable Brown, Priscilla Barnstable, their mother and Patricia's son this has become the standard by which other Derby parties are measured. This event raises funds for diabetes research, treatment & education at the University of Kentucky. Many celebrities have attended the Barnstable Brown Party who sometimes even put on spontaneous music performances.
Another star-studded Derby Eve event is the black-tie optional Unbridled Eve Gala. After walking the red carpet guest enjoy a cocktail reception sponsored by Southern Wine & Spirits brand partners. A silent auction benefiting a variety of charities and a gourmet dinner follow the reception. There is also a diverse array of live entertainment. Past celebrity guests at this event include Luke Bryan, Darren McFadden, Ron White and more.
The Julep Ball is also one of the longest running pre-Derby celebrations. Including a concert, a multiple course meal, an auction and dancing are the entertainment for this ball. Offering a more relaxed environment than many of the other galas the Julep Ball has a dress code of cocktail or track attire. Proceeds from this event benefit the Harriett B. Porter Endowment to support the health disparities in underserved communities in Louisville.
When the race is done and the winner draped in a blanket of roses, don't let that be the end of your day. Silks in the Bluegrass is one of the premier Derby after parties. Guests enjoy cocktails, dinner & live music all while helping Operation Open Arms, which helps children whose mothers are incarcerated.