The Kentucky Derby: 5 Facts, Tips & Traditions

May 3, 2017

Nothing announces the arrival of spring quite like spring showers, tulips, the Masters and of course the Kentucky Derby. The 143th Kentucky Derby takes place on May 6th at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. Maybe you are lucky enough to be attending the race this year, or maybe you are just throwing a party to watch the race with friends and family. Either way, here are some facts, tips and traditions to get you through race day.

The Horses

The horses that race in the Kentucky Derby are three year old thoroughbreds.

You’ll hear experts and commentators refer to the size of the horse by “hands.” The average size of a Kentucky Derby contender is 15.2 to 16.9 hands. A “hand” is four inches, and the horse is measured from his hoof to the top of his shoulders.

Secretariat holds the speed record for the Kentucky Derby, at 1:59.40. He won the race in 1973 and went on to be one of only eleven horses ever to win the triple crown (the other races include the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes).

The Race

The Kentucky Derby is held on the first Saturday in May. The race itself only takes about two minutes and is one and a quarter mile long.

Jockeys wear special racing silks in bright colors. This tradition began so that spectators could easily discern which horses were in the lead.

Photo: Dan Dry

The Kentucky Derby trophy is solid gold and stands two feet tall. It’s adorned by a horseshoe that was originally pointed down. In 1924, the design was changed to satisfy superstitious patrons—when the points are turned up, good luck is said to be held inside.

The race was nicknamed “The Run for the Roses” by columnist Bill Corum. The name referred to the Garland of Roses, a blanket of 554 red roses sewn onto green satin and draped over the winning horse. One end features the seal of the commonwealth; the other the twin spires of Churchill Downs. After the race, it’s sent to Danville, Kentucky where it’s freeze-dried for posterity.

When the horses are led onto the track, the song, “My Old Kentucky Home” is played by the University of Louisville Marching Band, a tradition since 1936.


It’s not just about the horse race – it would be hard to get people to come to a party that only lasts two minutes! The Kentucky Derby brings  people from all over the world together who want to eat, party and give some money to charity, too.

Opening night kicks off the derby the Saturday before the race with the trials races and concerts. When an event is hosted by two alcoholic beverages (Stella Artois and Finlandia Vodka), you know it’s going to be a party.

Tuesday and Wednesday mornings, people who aren’t too hung over can show up early at the track to watch the thoroughbreds workout and enjoy a breakfast buffet.

The Taste of Derby is held Thursday and allows foodies the chance to mingle with horse owners, jockeys and celebrities while they indulge in fabulous food and wine. Live entertainment caps off the evening, and some of the proceeds go to hunger relief charities.

Friday is Ladies First day and includes the Kentucky Oaks Pink Out event which benefits breast cancer research and awareness. Spectators are asked to wear pink and will enjoy a special signature cocktail, fashion show and survivors parade in addition to the fillies-only Race for the Lilies.



If you’re a woman attending the Kentucky Derby, it’s an absolute must to wear a fabulous hat. Think large. Think elaborate. Think noticeable. Men wear hats, too (though considerably more low-key). Some men even sport pastel or seersucker three-piece suits. Everyone in the stands dresses up – it’s a party, but a genteel, Southern party. If you’re wearing shorts and flip-flops, you should head for the infield (more on that below).

The mint julep is the official drink of the Kentucky Derby. It’s served in a commemorative glass and consists of mint, Early Times bourbon whiskey, water and sugar. Everyone drinks at least one.

Burgoo is a thick meat stew served at the Derby, and a Kentucky tradition. Eat some – you shouldn’t drink too many mint juleps on an empty stomach.

Bet on your favorite horse. At the Kentucky Derby, money flows as generously as the booze.

The Infield

If you love a crowd, the infield is the place to be on Derby day. The infield holds around 80,000 people, most of whom can’t even see the race from where they’re sitting. The alcohol flows continually and party people are allowed to bring in coolers with food. The infield isn’t the best spot for families (or those who actually want to see the horses race), but it is the best spot in Churchill Downs if you want to drink until you fall down.

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