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On the first weekend in May, thousands gather in Louisville for the Kentucky Derby, a horse race that draws the rich, famous and fashionable. Writer Maggie Dickmann shares its history and the traditions that endure today.
Text: Maggie Dickmann
Photos: Maggie Dickmann
Country: USA

ho doesn’t like a reason to gather with friends, enjoy a cold cocktail, and eat some delicious food?

Rio de Janeiro in Brazil has Carnival, Pamplona in Spain has the Running of the Bulls, India has Holi. And Louisville, in the U.S. state of Kentucky, has the Kentucky Derby, a horse race dubbed “the fastest two minutes in sports.”

The Kentucky Derby was started by Meriwether Lewis Clark, a descendent of the famous explorer William Clark of Lewis & Clark fame. He was inspired by England’s Epsom Derby. Clark attended the English race in 1872 and knew he had to bring similar festivities back to the United States. With financial help from his uncles, John and Henry Churchill, Clark’s dream became a reality in just three short years. On May 17, 1875, more than 10,000 fans flocked to Louisville’s Churchill Downs to cheer for and bet on their favorite horse. The eager spectators watched from the sidelines as history was made. Fifteen three-year-old thoroughbreds beat their hooves against the mud and strained against their jockeys, fighting for first place in the one-and-a-half mile race. Alas, only one horse could be named the winner, and for the inaugural race that horse was Aristides.

Over the years the Derby changed. In 1896 the distance was shortened to one-and-a-quarter miles because it was believed one-and-a-half miles were too long for the three-year-old horses. The Derby was broadcast for the first time on network radio in 1925, allowing 5 to 6 million listeners to follow the race. Even the Great Depression and wartime travel restrictions couldn’t dampen interest in the Derby; in 1943, in the middle of World War II, 65,000 fans still managed to find their way to the race. By 1952 the Kentucky Derby was telecast nationally and 10 to 15 million viewers across the country tuned in from their living rooms to watch Hill Gale cross the finish line first.

Now, 66 years after the first national televised Derby, many prefer to watch the race from the comforts of their own homes. Natasha Bond was born and raised in Louisville, so she’s experienced the madness of the Derby over the years. Her uncle always hosts a big party in honor of the event. Bond says, “He invites everyone. He even invited some random guy he met in line at the liquor store one year!” Her advice for preparing for one of her uncle’s parties is to hydrate because it’s going to be hot and there will be a lot of alcohol. There’s also homemade smoked pork and her aunt’s special Derby pie, a decadent dessert consisting of gooey chocolate and crunchy pecans blended together in a flaky pie crust shell. Bond can hardly contain her excitement when she thinks about her aunt’s Derby pie.

Bond says everyone brings food and drink—a lot of drink. And the star of the show is the mint julep. A mint julep is a cocktail made by muddling mint leaves with sugar, then adding ice, seltzer, and bourbon. Nothing is more embedded in Kentucky’s history than bourbon, so it’s only natural that bourbon is the alcohol of choice for the Kentucky Derby. Over Derby weekend, more than 120,000 mint juleps are sold at Churchill Downs alone. We don’t know how many are made and served at home, but we do know that despite stocking their shelves with bundles of mint, the local grocery stores usually sell out.

Since its inception, the Kentucky Derby has been the perfect platform for spectators to flaunt their wealth, just like the Epsom Derby on which it was modeled. Clark employed high-class women to draw in spectators and wealthy clientele. To this day the Derby still draws the most famous celebrities of our time. Besides the various actors, musicians, and athletes that come every year to cheer on their favorite horse, Queen Elizabeth II had a front row seat in 2007 and Richard Nixon‘s appearance in 1969 makes him the only sitting U.S. president to attend. Nine presidents have come while not in office. Celebrities dress to the nines, and like alcohol, fashion has been vital to the enjoyment of the Derby from the beginning. Ask anyone today about Derby fashion, and they’re bound to mention the hats.

Although the Kentucky Derby has consistently been a place for fashion, in the 1960s that fashion was manifested in ladies’ hats, and the tradition has stuck. Whether they’re attending a party or going to the track, it’s not uncommon for women to spend weeks or months searching for the perfect Derby hat. The dress and shoes are important, yes, but the hat brings it all together. In an effort to save money and because it’s more fun, Bond usually makes her annual Derby hat. By making it herself she can also guarantee it will match her dress.

Tiffany Woodard also makes her annual Derby hat. Well, technically it’s called a “fascinator,” and technically she makes them for a lot of women. A fascinator is a lightweight alternative to a fancy hat. It’s usually a decorative design attached to a headband or clip. Woodard’s designs are attached to headbands. She says of her craft, “I started making very small understated headbands back in 2008. I didn’t live in Louisville and I didn’t know much about the Derby, so when I moved here in 2011, it was a very natural progression into what my product is today.” And what her product is today is beautiful, extravagant, one-of-a-kind headpieces. In line with Clark’s vision, Woodard says, “Women wearing hats to the Derby has been a tradition since the very first race. I think the fascinator is a great alternative if you have a hard time with hats, but still want to uphold the tradition.”

Bond is much more of a traditionalist when it comes to the Derby headwear. She says, “Derby hats are a thing, not Derby headbands,” but tradition changes and more than 200 women side with Woodard on the fashion choice (that’s how many fascinators Woodard sold for 2018). In the six years Woodard has been making and selling fascinators for Derby, she’d never seen one of her customers sporting one until this year. “In previous years, tons of people have sent me their Derby photos or tagged me, but I had never actually seen one of my pieces in person at the Derby, among the 140,000 attendees. This past year we were up on the third floor and I not only spotted three of my fascinators, I was recognized by a few women who wanted one of mine and didn’t get one before they sold out! It was so wild!”

From the drinks to the fashion it’s obvious that the Derby is a big deal. To some, it might seem excessive to get so dolled up when the big race is just one day—really, only a few minutes of one day—but the city starts getting amped up three weeks before the main event. “Thunder Over Louisvillekicks off the celebrations with an outstanding air show and firework display. Over half a million eager spectators line both banks of the Ohio River in Louisville and Jeffersonville, Indiana, to watch North America’s largest annual pyrotechnic display light up the night sky. The sound is so great that it sounds like thunder, thus its name. As if the fireworks weren’t enough, the afternoon of Thunder begins with one of the nation’s largest air shows. An air show is a spectacular feat of aero- acrobatics performed by pilots flying a variety of fighter planes. From the fireworks that are launched from eight 400-foot barges floating on the river to the loop-de-loops of the jets, Thunder Over Louisville is nothing short of amazing.

For two to three weeks every April and May, Louisville, Kentucky transforms into a city-wide celebration. Derby signifies the end of winter and the beginning of spring. For children it means summer vacation is right around the cornerin fact, many schools observe Derby as a holiday, so kids don’t have to go to school. For adults, it’s an excuse to soak up the good weather and good vibes.

Fact Box:

· The Kentucky Derby is the longest continual-running sporting event in North America.

· All horses must be three-years-old or younger to race in the Kentucky Derby.

· More than 150,000 spectators attend the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs annually.

Facts from: Kentucky Derby


Horses and high society

On the first weekend in May thousands gather in Louisville, Kentucky for the Kentucky Derby, a horse race that draws the rich, famous, and fashionable. The Kentucky Derby was started by Meriwether Lewis Clark. In 1872 he attended England's Epsom Derby and was inspired to duplicate the famous horse race in Kentucky.

The first Kentucky Derby took place on May 17, 1875 in Churchill Downs. Spectators cheered as fifteen three-year-old thoroughbreds raced for a mile and a half. The winner for the inaugural race was a horse named Aristides.

Over the years the Derby has changed some. In 1896 the race was shortened to one-and-a- quarter miles. In 1925 it was broadcast on the radio for the first time. And by 1952 it was telecast nationally with over 10 million viewers watching from home. Nowadays most people prefer to watch the derby from the comfort of their own home. Natasha Bond, a Louisville native, says her uncle always hosts a big party in honor of the event.

The Kentucky Derby has always been the perfect place for people to flaunt their wealth. To this day the Derby still draws the most famous celebrities of our time. They come to bet and cheer for their favorite horse and drink mint juleps. A mint julep is a cocktail made by muddling mint leaves with sugar, then adding ice, seltzer, and bourbon.

One other important part of the Derby is fashion, especially hats. Bond usually makes her own annual Derby hat. Tiffany Woodard also makes her own hat, or rather, fascinator. A fascinator is a lightweight alternative to a fancy hat. And she sells them to other Derby attendees.

The big race may be only one day, but the city prepares for it three weeks in advance with fireworks and air shows. If you want to witness an amazing celebration, head down to Louisville in May, don your best hat, drink some mint juleps, and bet on a horse or two!



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