When is the Kentucky Derby?

The first Saturday of May brings the Kentucky Derby, held at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. It is a horse race that was first run in 1875 when it drew 10,000 spectators. Today, the race draws approximately 150,000 race enthusiasts each year. This race is so prestigious that retiring Derby winners can be worth $60 million to breeders looking to make the next great racehorse.

History of the Kentucky Derby

The Kentucky Derby has been called “The Run for the Roses,” referring to the bed of 554 roses awarded to the winner. It has also been called “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports” because it is usually done in about 125 seconds. The race is 1.25 miles, run by 15 three-year-old thoroughbred horses. Many traditions have developed around this longstanding race. Some add charm and class, others are just plain odd.

Kentucky Derby Traditions


The “Triple Crown” is a tradition that began in the early 1900s. Kentucky Derby winners began racing consecutively in two other races, the Maryland Preakness Stakes on the third Saturday in May and the New York Belmont Stakes, run in early June or five weeks after the Kentucky Derby. Sportswriter Charles Hatton started calling these races the “Triple Crown” in 1930.

Box seats are traditionally available to those who can afford it. These seats are called “Millionaire’s Row”, attracting rich and famous spectators. There is a traditional dress code required in these seats. Men are found in tuxedos or sold colored suits. Women wear spring dresses, lavish and dramatic hats, along with white gloves.

Women Hats at the Kentucky Derby

Women’s hats are the subject of much talk at the Kentucky Derby. While some are designed with great care and artistic flare, others are simply gawdy. Some have been known to simply staple stuffed animals to a summer hat and wear the monstrosity to the event.

Party On

The infield is the part of the racetrack where general admission spectators sit. Very little of the race can be seen from this area, so there is less pomp and circumstance here. Instead, track goers arrive in common dress and attend for the traditional celebrations. The race takes a back seat to the celebrations.

My Old Kentucky Home

Before the race, horses are paraded in front of the grandstands while the University of Louisville marching band plays “My Old Kentucky Home” by Stephen Foster. Sometimes called “The Father of American Music,” Stephen Foster also penned the traditional songs “Oh! Susanna” and “Camptown Races”.

The Kentucky Derby’s official drink is the Mint Julep, consisting of bourbon, mint and sweet syrup on ice. A special Kentucky Derby commemorative glass is used to drink the beverage. The traditional meal of the Derby, burgoo, is a thick and meaty stew, similar to chili. The race’s official flower is the rose, because of the roses given to the winner after the race.

Pre-Race Festivities

The Kentucky Derby is not just a race. There are two weeks of more than 70 events held before the race, collectively called the Kentucky Derby Festival. Events may include balloon tours, balls, concerts, children’s activities and various competitions. The Kentucky Derby Festival is kicked off with Thunder Over Louisville, the nation’s largest fireworks show, attended by more than 500,000 spectators.


Of course, betting is the longest standing activity at the Kentucky Derby but there are different traditions on how to bet. Some bet for fun hoping to win $1,000,000 on a $1 bet and that does occasionally happen. Some just throw darts at the lineup sheet. Others carefully analyze the horse’s breeding and racing history. This betting tradition is called “handicapping”.

Bets can be placed for horses to win, place or show. A win only pays if the horse takes first place. Choosing a first or second finisher will give you a payoff if you bet on place. Show pays if the horse is first, second or third. Other bets called “exacta,” “trifecta,” and “superfecta”. Exacta requires you pick the first two winners in order, trifecta pays if you pick the first three in order and superfecta only pays if you pick the first four winning horses in exact order.