Photo of blurred horses running in the Kentucky Derby

You’ve seen the hats, but how much do you actually know about the Kentucky Derby?

Photo of Jessica Kelley
Jessica Kelley

The Kentucky Derby is the longest continuously held sporting event in the United States, with the first event being held in 1875—but chances are you don’t know much about it beyond its fanfare.

The 2023 Kentucky Derby—taking place May 6 in Louisville, Kentucky—is the 149th renewal of the horse race. In honor of this weekend’s festivities, The Daily sat down with Jessica Kelley, professor and chair of the Department of Sociology at Case Western Reserve University, to learn why the event has been so popular for more than 100 years—even though horse racing is no longer at the forefront of sport. 

Kelley often uses sports in her teaching to illustrate the ways social institutions can simultaneously generate solidarity and reproduce social inequality. In addition to her sociological expertise, Kelley grew up less than an hour away from Churchill Downs, where the Kentucky Derby is held, so she has a unique sense of the importance of the event. 

Read on to learn Kelley’s insights on the Kentucky Derby. 

The derby has been dubbed ‘The Greatest Two Minutes in Sports.’

The race length is just 1 and ¼ mile, and is open to any 3-year-old horse, although, due to the need for speed and power, the race is largely dominated by male horses. Since 1875, only three fillies (female horses) have won the derby.

The Kentucky Derby is the first of three consecutive races of varying length and turf. Officially named the Triple Crown races in 1950, the three races were considered a triad from the turn of the century and the test of a “super horse.” The second race is the Preakness (taking place May 20 this year) in Baltimore, Maryland, and the Belmont Stakes (taking place June 10) in Belmont, New York.

The derby isn’t the only race in town.

The Oaks is the race held the day before the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, and was established in 1875 by the person who established the Kentucky Derby: Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr., grandson of Meriwether Lewis (of explorers Lewis and Clark fame). The race is open to only 3-year-old fillies. The Oaks event has evolved into a celebration of women. Participants are encouraged to wear something pink for breast and ovarian cancer awareness. A parade of 150 cancer survivors walk the track prior to the running of The Oaks signature horse race.

Derby attendees are expected to dress the part. 

Col. Clark envisioned the Kentucky Derby to be an event attended by members of high society, much as was the case in England when he first envisioned the race for the U.S. For the first running of the Kentucky Derby, Clark employed women from wealthy families to promote and invite his ideal clientele to the race. The derby quickly became as much of a spring fashion exposition as a horse race! While decorative hats have been part of the tradition from the beginning, real competition for having one of the best hats at the Kentucky Derby emerged in the 1960s, when television crews began to broadcast the Kentucky Derby and the audience for the event grew to the millions.

Hats at the derby are designed to be show-stopping works of art. Traditionally, the base would be a wide-brimmed Southern hat, adorned with flowers, ribbons, feathers, or netting.  More recently other styles have begun to appear, such as the fascinator (a smaller head piece secured to the head with a comb or headband) or the fedora. Celebrities and the very rich will likely have a custom-made hat from a Milliner, although the famous derby milliners have waiting lists several years long! In recent decades, the hat competition has become a competition for all, regardless of gender expression!

There are traditional derby foods and drinks.

Photo of commemorative Kentucky Derby glasses filled with mint julep on a table
Mint juleps

The official drink of the Kentucky Derby is the Mint Julep, made with Kentucky bourbon, simple syrup, and crushed mint. Ideally, you are drinking it from your commemorative derby glass, which lists all past derby winners.

Classic derby picnic foods include small sandwiches made with country ham, Benedictine spread, or pimento cheese, and a traditional Kentucky Hot Brown. Then there’s dessert: A slice of Kentucky Derby pie, made with a chocolate and walnut filling in a flaky pie crust. Purists insist on adding a little Kentucky bourbon to the pie mixture!

Fast facts about the Kentucky Derby

Planning on attending a watch party with friends or family? Impress them by keeping these facts at the ready:

  • The horse Secretariat set the fastest Derby time at 1 minute and 59.4 seconds in 1973. The record has yet to be broken. Secretariat went on to be a Triple Crown winner. 
  • Only 13 horses have won all three races of the Triple Crown. Justify won it in 2018 and American Pharaoh in 2015. These broke a long streak of no winners, as the last winner had been Affirmed in 1978.
  • The Kentucky Derby is also known as the Run for the Roses because the winning horse is draped in a blanket of over 400 roses, weighing nearly 40 pounds.
  • The Derby has only been held on a day other than the first Saturday in May twice—once in 1945, when a wartime ban on horse racing postponed the event, and a second time in 2020 when the race was delayed until September by the COVID-19 pandemic.