The Kentucky Derby is an American Classic but for those of us who’ve never been or for the first time visitor, it’s important to familiarize ourselves with the traditions that define this monumental event. These are the top eight classic Kentucky Derby traditions you’ll need to know to look like an old pro.
Garland of Roses
You’ve certainly heard the phrase “Run for the Roses®” and now you know that it originated with the Kentucky Derby. This rose garland is easily associated with the event for most of us, but its history predates us all. Its first appearance was in 1896 when winner Ben Brush was presented a white and pink rose floral arrangement. Several years later (in 1904), the red rose became the official flower of the Kentucky Derby. In 1925, Bill Corum, a sports columnist for the New York Times, coined the now-famous phrase. Then, in 1932, the garland – as we know it today – made its first appearance.
As they describe it, it consists of “more than 400 red roses is sewn into a green satin backing with the seal of the Commonwealth on one end and the Twin Spires and number of the race’s current renewal on the other. Each garland is also adorned with a “crown” of roses, green fern and ribbon. The “crown,” a single rose pointing upward in the center of the garland, symbolizes the struggle and heart necessary to reach the Derby Winner’s Circle.”
The Twin Spires
The iconic twin spires greeting guests of Churchill Downs were constructed in 1895. They were the addition of a young draftsman who was charged with the task of drawing the blueprints for the building. The then 24-year-old Joseph Dominic Baldez added the spires because he felt the building needed a striking feature. His intuition was spot-on and he helped to create one of the most recognizable structures in Kentucky and provide an oft-used backdrop for many photos.
“My Old Kentucky Home”
We regularly pair a victory in sports with a song or an anthem that marks the win and at the Kentucky Derby, you’ll hear more than 160,000 people singing “My Old Kentucky Home” along with the band as the post parade takes to the track. While its history is a bit murky, it’s believed that the tradition dates back to 1921.
The Kentucky Derby explains this tradition best.
The first running of the Kentucky Oaks was on May 19, 1875, when Churchill Downs was known as the Louisville Jockey Club. The race was founded by Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr. along with the Kentucky Derby. The Oaks and the Derby are the oldest continuously contested sporting events in history, and the only horse races to be held at their original site since its conception. The Longines Kentucky Oaks was modeled after the British Epsom Oaks.
In recent years, the Mint Julep cocktail has risen to popularity across the United States but in Kentucky, it’s a tradition that’s been in place for nearly 100 years. Serving more than 120,000 over two days each year, you’ll be hard-pressed to find race fans without one in their hand. Served in a silver Julep cup, the drink is bourbon-based and contains sugar, water, fresh mint, and crushed ice. As they say, “Cool as Kentucky. Fresh as Spring.”
Hats have long been a tradition in the south, but at the Kentucky Derby, that tradition takes on a new meaning as a spectacle. Each year part of the fun of the derby – whether you attend in person or just follow the event in the news – is hat-watching. It’s a time to celebrate your personal style and love for some flair.
Perhaps it’s the hats or maybe it’s the opportunity to see and be seen, but celebrities have been flocking to the Kentucky Derby almost since the beginning.
One of the first celebrity sightings dates to 1877 when famed Polish actress Helena Modjeska attended the third running of the Kentucky Derby. In the 1945 book, Down the Stretch, it was noted that Modjeska was impressed by the Kentucky Derby but even more charmed by the mint julep to which she was introduced by Churchill Downs founder M. Lewis Clark following the race.
Trophy & Winners Circle
In the early days of the Kentucky Derby, it’s not clear whether or not trophies were presented and as a result, a location to celebrate the winners wasn’t necessarily dedicated. However, as of 1924, the trophy standard was set and has changed little since. Then, in 1938, the Winners Circle was established and is used only for winners of the Kentucky Derby – save for a few weddings over the years, though.
With so much history and being such an integral part of the American story, the Kentucky Derby is an annual event that is well-worth the trip. Will you be attending? If you do, you may need to relax afterward, we’d suggest you follow your Kentucky visit with a trip to South Carolina to explore everything Charleston has to offer.