It’s not often you find tradition, sports, Southern charm and a really tasty bourbon drink in one place, but every year the Kentucky Derby meshes together all that and more for an unforgettable event that draws spectators from all over the world and transforms Louisville, Kentucky into a one huge party.
The sound of thundering hooves has been the heartbeat of Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, since the Derby first launched there in 1875. What many people don’t realize is that the legendary race wasn’t the first of its kind, but rather the third iteration of an event that first took place in Surrey, England, as well as Paris, France. The esteemed Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. witnessed the excitement and popularity of those French and English derbies while traveling and decided to come home and build his own 1.5-mile racetrack (the track would later be shortened to its current distance of 1.25 miles).
The first Kentucky Derby took place on May 17, 1875, when 10,000 people watched jockey Oliver Lewis ride Aristides to victory over a 15-horse field. In the more than 100 years since that historic day, records have been set – including the famed Secretariat run of just under two minutes in 1973 – countless crowds have partied and cheered, and a tradition was set continues to thrive today.
Currently, the Kentucky Derby offers the race’s jockeys a combined $2 million purse, of which the winner typically gets about $1.6 million. While the money is nice, it’s the eye-catching swath of a 554-bloom garland draped over the champion that gives the Derby its nickname “The Run for the Roses.” In 2017, top honors went to Always Dreaming, a horse that beat out second-place finisher Lookin at Lee by more than two lengths.
Derby Day is known largely for three things: horses, drinks and attire. The field of three-year-old racehorses takes center stage, of course, but for many attendees, heading to Churchill Downs – or indeed having any kind of Derby-related party, in Kentucky or elsewhere – is about the convivial atmosphere and embracing race-day traditions.
No Derby party is complete without a hefty helping of the iconic mint julep. The icy drink contains a good measure of bourbon mixed with fresh mint and a sugary simple syrup; there is a special silver tumbler-style julep cup, but many imbibers opt for one of the collectible souvenir glasses first made available to the public way back in 1939. Less well-known than the julep but just as tasty is a thick stew called burgoo. The large dish of meat (often game) and vegetables is thickened and seasoned with everything from Worcestershire sauce to chili powder..
While the pricey box seats in Millionaire’s Row are where some lucky guests choose to kick up their heels and cheer on their picks, many people prefer the view from the boisterous infield area. That’s where attendees can show off their famous Derby Day ensembles, the most important accessories being the large, wildly embellished hats that are synonymous with the event. For women, attire usually runs to pastel-colored outfits that keep the focus on the hats, while men often sport bold patterns and bright colors, and seersucker is never out of place.
If you need some last minute horse betting guidance, check out this article about how keeping an eye out for horses being shipped in to the race can help your odds, “Meet Ending Shippers.”
The 2018 Kentucky Derby takes place on May 5, with live racing firing off on April 28. Anyone hoping to attend will have to choose from a bevy of ticket options ranging from simple Derby Day access to two-day pass options to a package that’s good for the whole week of festivities. Those festivities include a number of special events as well. Opening night is a large party honoring both sport and the local arts scene; fancy dress is a must, and there are live performances and art installations to be enjoyed.
Visitors interested in seeing the trainers and horses hard at work can buy a ticket to Dawn at the Downs, a behind-the-scenes look at morning workouts accompanied by expert commentary. Other events take spectators down to the paddocks, around wine and food booths at the Taste of the Derby, and trackside at Kentucky Oaks (a race held the day before the Derby in support of the Norton Cancer Institute Breast Health Program).
Outside the Downs, Louisville offers the more inquisitive reveler Bourbon Trail Tours and Horse Farm Tours as well as parties like the legendary Barnstable Brown Gala that have in recent years featured surprise performances from Kid Rock, Backstreet Boys, Miranda Lambert for guests like Jeff Bridges, Tom Brady, Ashton Kutcher, Larry David, Katie Couric and “This is Us” star Justin Hartley. Visitors also have opportunity to catch some great musical performances ranging from hip-hop stars Lil Wayne & Cardi B to country legend Dwight Yoakam.
The main event remains the Derby itself. Fans can make an appearance at any of the official Derby events, but it’s tickets to race day that remain the biggest score. Events 365 offers clients everything from single seats to private suites to hotel and hospitality packages.
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