(Churchill Downs circa 1901)
This is my first of two posts on Derby History. Before we get into facts about the race and the track itself I want you to get a feel for the overall deal. So many people ask, “Why all the buildup and fuss about an event that only lasts two minutes? For just two minutes of excitement you might not even shave your legs!” See if this helps. Where could the following things happen simultaneously within a property of less than 150 acres and not be a huge story with intrigue and scandal dominating the news for days? Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and her husband Prince Phillip wave to the crowd nearby then sit down to study the racing form before placing bets, while in the next room Gene Simmons, Kid Rock and Peyton Manning talk about Shannon Tweed’s $100,000 bet on the Derby that Mr. Simmons is trying to sell for $80,000 (to no avail) while at the third turn in the infield young men are handing over strands of beads as payment to get a glimpse of what God and (or plastic surgeons) gave to some very inebriated young ladies. The total attendance that year was over 150,000. That’s just a few moments at Derby 2008.
Louisville, Kentucky by the mid 19th Century before the Civil War had a large working class population of German and Irish decent. We have always known how to have a good time for no apparent reason and the Limestone in the creeks and rivers in Kentucky adds something to the water that makes horses run fast. Add some wealthy people and that is the basic recipe for The Kentucky Derby. Of course, there are tons of facts and interesting tidbits about the Derby and countless websites list the facts better than I can, so we will attach several links about all things Derby. The Kentucky Derby is known worldwide as “The Fastest Two Minutes in Sports”. It is not the oldest Thoroughbred race but it is the most famous, due in part to the joy we here in Louisville take in making the most of a good time. Each generation since the 1870’s kept certain traditions, added to them, and invited everyone to join in celebrating this rite of Spring. The location and direction of the track, the competing horses being three years old, ladies wearing pretty hats and the name of the race are the only “original” traditions. Has the length of the Derby always been a mile and a quarter? Has the race always been held on the first Saturday in May? The Garland of Roses, Mint Juleps, Pegasus Pins, Millionaire’s Row, Derby glasses, “My Old Kentucky Home”, The Trophy, The Winners Circle, Call to the Post? All these have been added along the way.