History of Kentucky Derby

Kentucky Derby History
Photo credit: https://www.history.com/

The Kentucky Derby is a Grade I stakes race for 3 year-old thoroughbred horses, held annually in Louisville, Kentucky, on the first Saturday in May. Since May 17, 1875, the Kentucky Derby has been held at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. The first jewel of the Triple Crown, which includes the Belmont Stakes and the Preakness Stakes, the Kentucky Derby is a high stakes race for three-year-old thoroughbred horses.

Known as “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports” for the approximate amount of time it takes all horses to cross the finish line, the Kentucky Derby is now held annually on the first Saturday in May and draws close to 155,000 fans. In addition to the race itself, a number of traditions play a large role in the Derby atmosphere. The Mint Julep, an iced drink consisting of bourbon, mint and a sugar syrup is the traditional beverage of the race. The historic drink can be served in an ice-frosted silver julep cup but most Churchill Downs patrons sip theirs from a souvenir glass printed with all previous Derby winners. Also, burgoo, a thick stew of beef, chicken, pork and vegetables, is a popular Kentucky dish served at the Derby.

The infield, a spectator area inside the track, offers general admission prices but little chance of seeing much of the race. Instead, revelers show up in the infield to party with abandon. By contrast, “Millionaire’s Row” refers to the expensive box seats that attract the rich, the famous and the well-connected. Women appear in fine outfits lavishly accessorized with large, elaborate hats. As the horses are paraded before the grandstands, the University of Louisville marching band plays Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home.”

The Derby is frequently referred to as “The Run for the Roses,” because a lush blanket of 554 red roses is awarded to the Kentucky Derby winner each year. The tradition is as a result of New York socialite E. Berry Wall presenting roses to ladies at a post-Derby party in 1883 that was attended by Churchill Downs founder and president, Col. M. Lewis Clark. This gesture is believed to have eventually led Clark to the idea of making the rose the race’s official flower. However, it was not until 1896 that any recorded account referred to roses being draped on the Derby winner. The Governor of Kentucky awards the garland and the trophy. Pop vocalist Dan Fogelberg composed a song by that title for the 1980 running of the race.’

Garland of Roses

Garland of roses
source: Chicago Now

The Kentucky Derby is called the “Run for the Roses” because of the garland of 554 red roses draped over the winner.

The roses were first established as part of the Derby celebration when they were presented to all the ladies attending a fashionable Louisville Derby party. The roses were such a sensation, that the president of Churchill Downs, Col. Lewis Clark, adopted the rose as the race’s official flower. The rose garland now synonymous with the Kentucky Derby first appeared in the 1896 when the winner, Ben Brush, received a floral arrangement of white and pink roses.

Each year, a garland of 554 red roses is sewn into a green satin backing with the seal of the Commonwealth on one end and the twin spires and number of the running on the other. Each garland is also adorned with a “Crown” of roses, green fern and ribbon. The “Crown”, a single rose pointing upward in the center of the garland, symbolizes the struggle and heart necessary to reach the winners’ circle.

My Old Kentucky Home – Official Derby Song

lthough there is no definitive history on the playing of the Stephen Foster ballad as a Derby Day tradition it is believed to have had its origin in 1921 for the 47th running of the classic.

The Courier-Journal in their May 8, 1921 edition reported, “To the strains of “My Old Kentucky Home” Kentuckians gave vent their delight. For Kentucky triumphed in the Derby.” The story refers to the popular victory of the Kentucky-owned and bred Behave Yourself.

The actual year the song was played as the horses were led onto the track is also unclear. A 1929 news account written by the legendary Damon Runyon reported that the song was played periodically throughout Derby Day. A report by the former Philadelphia Public Ledger provides evidence that 1930 may have been the first year the song was played as the horses were led to the post parade – “When the horses began to leave the paddock and the song ‘My Old Kentucky Home’ was coming from the radio, the cheering started.”

Since 1936, with only a few exceptions, the song has been performed by the University of Louisville Marching Band.

The composer of the song, Stephen Foster, died in New York’s Bowery district Jan. 10, 1864 at the age of 38.

To honor the composer, Churchill Downs created the Stephen Foster Handicap in 1982. The race for three-year-olds and up at 1 1/8 miles, has grown in popularity and now serves as a Grade II event with a purse of $750,000, the richest stakes at the Downs outside of the Derby.

Some other melodies Foster composed include “Beautiful Dreamer,” “Swanee River” and “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair.” For Kentuckians and the countless race fans who have taken in the Derby in person or via radio or television, Foster will best be remembered for his moving ballad “My Old Kentucky Home.”

MY OLD KENTUCKY HOME
By Stephen Foster

The sun shines bright in the old Kentucky home,
Tis summer, the people are gay;
The corn-top’s ripe and the meadow’s in the bloom
While the birds make music all the day.

The young folks roll on the little cabin floor
All merry, all happy and bright;
By’n by hard times comes a knocking at the door
Then my old Kentucky home, Good-night!

Weep no more my lady. Oh! Weep no more today!
We will sing one song for my old Kentucky home
For the old Kentucky home, far away.