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Recently, I’ve had several customers ask me to help them select something to wear to the Kentucky Derby.  That experience made me think that maybe many of you would like to know a little more about the history and traditions of this amazing sporting event, so here we go.

They say the most famous horse race in the world is also the “most thrilling two minutes in sports.”  If you’ve ever been to the Kentucky Derby, I’m sure you agree.  Even if you haven’t and have only watched it on television from your living room or on a bar stool, you’ve witnessed the excitement I’m talking about.  With less than six weeks to the big day, it regularly attracts more than 150,000 people. The date in 2022 is May 7, at the historic Churchill Downs racecourse in Louisville, Kentucky, of course.

A Brief History

The inaugural Kentucky Derby was held in 1875 so that makes the 2022 “run for the roses” the 148th.  The developer of Churchill Downs, William Meriwether Clark, grandson of Lewis and Clark Expedition fame, had visited England three years prior and witnessed the Epsom Derby, a famous British race that had been run since 1780 on the outskirts of London.

When Clark returned to Kentucky, he founded the Louisville Jockey Club and raised money to construct a racetrack on land donated by his uncles.  Clark was notorious for throwing extravagant parties, and he envisioned his racetrack as a place where the city’s stylish residents would gather.

On May 17, 1875, some 10,000 people attended the first Kentucky Derby.  It featured a field of three-year old thoroughbreds racing 1.5 miles.  In 1895, some members of the racing community complained that the distance was too long, and the event was reduced to 1.25 miles, (that’s 10 furlongs for you racing buffs) the length it is today.  In 1925 the Kentucky Derby aired on network radio for the first time, and in 1949 the first television coverage of the race happened.  Three years later in 1952, the Kentucky Derby made its debut on national TV.

The race is so popular that in the two weeks preceding the running, Louisville holds the Kentucky Derby Festival.  Patrons of horseracing along with the rich and famous as well as regular folks come from all over the globe to participate in the festivities which include:  Thunder Over Louisville (the biggest annual fireworks display in North America), the Great Balloon Race, the Pegasus Parade (one of the country’s largest) to kick-off the Derby week festivities, and The Great Steamboat Race.  The 2022 purse is $3 million.

Kentucky Derby Traditions

Like any major sporting or social event that just happens to be nearly 150 years old, the Kentucky Derby is steeped in tradition with memorable annual rituals and pageantry.

THE DATE:  With rare exceptions since the 1930’s, the Kentucky Derby has always been held on the first Saturday in May.  No other sporting event is so tied to a particular month and day.

AN ICONIC BACKDROP:  The “Twin Spires” on top of the Churchill Downs grandstand have greeted millions of attendees over the years, and every Derby winner since 1895 has passed by them.  They are the symbol of the Derby and used in most scenic photographs.

THE SONG: “MY Old Kentucky Home,” is sung by a chorus of attendees during the field walk onto the track and parade in front of the stands.  Written by Stephen Foster in the 19th century, the ballad has been a mainstay at the Derby since 1930.

THE DRINK:  The concoction of bourbon, sugar and mint known as a “Mint Julep” is now famous the world over due to its association with the Kentucky Derby.  At every Derby Day party in the U.S. and abroad, “Mint Juleps” are a must-have drink.

ROSES:  Since 1884, roses have been a part of the Kentucky Derby, hence the nickname “Run for the Roses.”  Each year more than 400 red roses are sewn on a green satin blanket and draped around the neck of the notorious horse in the winner’s circle.

FASHION:  Fashion has been a part of the Kentucky Derby since its inception, thanks to founder William Clark, whose goal was to improve the image of American racetracks and attract an upscale crowd to Churchill Downs.  Stay tuned for my next blog where I’ll cover “what to wear” to the Kentucky Derby.

I’m looking forward to watching the Derby this year and hoping one of my friends has a Derby Party.  I’m Mary from Q, Contrary.  Check out my shop in Phoenix at 3168 East Camelback Road or visit my online store.  I’d love to help you find the right outfit for the Kentucky Derby or any other occasion.


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