Spring is when one of America's most legendary races takes place: the Kentucky Derby. More than 140 years of tradition surround this world-famous horse race, in which 20 top thoroughbreds will run one and a quarter miles in the "Run for the Roses".
The 141st running of the Kentucky Derby takes place on Saturday, May 2nd at the legendary Churchill Downs racetrack in Louisville. Whether you're a racing aficionado or simply a casual observer at this glamorous event, here's a look at some of the customs that are part of the festivities.
- The winning thoroughbred is adorned with the famous Garland of Roses. "It's the most coveted possession in the world of racing," says Tim McGurk, spokesperson for The Kroger Company, which produces the hand-made floral garland. The 40-pound garland is constructed by a team of master floral designers, honored to take part in such a notable tradition. Each of the more than 450 "Freedom" roses on the garland is hand-sewn into the green satin backing. Construction of the garland can be viewed by the public on Derby Eve at a Louisville Kroger store, an event that has become a tradition it itself. The garland, along with the Jockey's Bouquet of 60 long-stemmed roses tied with 10 yards of red ribbon, is then taken by police escort to Churchill Downs the morning of the Derby.
While the Derby is the pinnacle of the racing season, there's another grand race that takes place the day before: the Kentucky Oaks. Known as the "Run for the Lilies," this race dates back to 1875. Horses running the Oaks are 3-year-old fillies. Each carries 121 pounds, which includes the jockey, saddle and gear. The winning horse receives a large garland of the race's signature white Star Fighter Lilies with vibrant magenta centers, known as "Lilies for the Fillies".
If you go to the Oaks, think pink! The festivities include a Survivors Parade on May 1, a march of 141 breast and ovarian cancer survivors, presented by Kroger with supporting sponsor Kindred Healthcare. Participants and spectators are encouraged to show their support by wearing pink.
The Kentucky Derby is known for its flair and fashion. Women typically wear stylish hats and colorful pastel dresses. Men can also get into the spirit by donning a hat with their classic, fresh, and Southern Prep choice of clothing. A stricter dress code is enforced in the high-end seats.
If you like to keep it casual, consider tickets in The Infield, where the atmosphere is often compared to Mardi Gras and the tickets are substantially less pricey. In this setting, you are more apt to party with jeans-clad revelers than hob nob with high-profile celebrities. There's little chance of viewing the actual race (it's broadcast on a video screen). You're more likely to enjoy fellow partygoers' antics. This section is exposed to the elements, so bring your sunscreen or a rain jacket depending on the weather. Umbrellas are not allowed at Churchill Downs during Derby weekend!
- While the races take center stage, Sara Brown Meehan, Director of Lifestyle Communications at Churchill Downs Racetrack, says one of the most unique and enjoyable traditions is the Dawn at the Downs breakfast. "It allows true equine fans an up-close insider's view of the Kentucky Derby and Oaks contenders as they go through their morning workouts. While guests enjoy a Southern style breakfast in a premium dining room with a view of the track, experts including ESPN.com's Gary West and Churchill Downs' Joe Kristucfek provide insight into the horses and morning workouts. There's no better way to get insider insights during Derby week."
Another symbol of the event is the Twin Spires that adorn the roofline at Churchill Downs. The hexagonal spires were constructed in 1895, creating an elegant architectural landmark that is recognized around the world.
It's an emotional moment when the horses step out onto the track for the post parade as "My Old Kentucky Home" plays. The University of Louisville Marching Band has performed the song nearly every year since 1936.
Another century old tradition is the derby cocktail, more commonly known as the Mint Julep, a blend of ice, Kentucky bourbon, and fresh mint. Fans order nearly 120,000 Mint Juleps at Churchill Downs over the weekend of the Oaks and the Derby.
If you are heading to Louisville, consider more of these insider tips from Sara Brown Meehan:
- Come prepared. If it's sunny, remember to bring sunscreen. Umbrellas aren't allowed in the racetrack so bring a poncho if it's raining.
If you enjoy celebrity spotting, head over to the red carpet near Gate 10 from noon to 2 p.m. The crowd exiting is heaviest immediately following the Derby, so linger and enjoy the next races. Most importantly, don't drive. Take public transportation or one of the shuttles that run throughout Louisville on Derby day.
Bring a pair of easily disposable flip flops. Ladies wearing high heels may find parking conditions to be difficult and the walking distance muddy, rocky and adventurous. Wear flip flops and swap them out when you get into the track. Purse size must not be over 12" X 12" so stashing your shoes may be worth considering.
Carry cash as well as a credit card. It will make eating, drinking, wagering and transportation easier and faster.
And finally, if you can't enjoy the race and festivities in person, consider throwing your own Kentucky Derby party! Invite your friends, put on your favorite party dress, set a festive table, and let the party begin.
Visit my blog for more Kentucky Derby Etiquette tips and my Pinterest board for Kentucky Derby inspiration.