Kentucky Derby Traditions

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The Kentucky Derby is the most iconic horse race that takes place each year in May. This year, it will take place on May 1, 2021. It has been running since 1875 and it takes place at the legendary Churchill Downs racetrack. This is a race that is steeped in history, with there being a lot of amazing Kentucky Derby traditions, some of which are talked about below in this Kentucky Derby guide.

Garland of Roses 

The garland of roses has been a mainstay since the 1896 renewal of the race. It was in 1904 that the official flower for the race became the red rose. This garland in its current form has been a staple of the race since the 1932 renewal when Burgoo King was the victor.

This current form sees more than 400 roses sewn into a green satin blanket that also has the state seal on one end, with the Twin Spires and the renewal of the race on a seal at the other end. There is one single rose in the middle of the garland which points upwards to symbolize the heart and struggle it takes to be a winner. 

This blanket is then draped over the winning Kentucky Derby horse’s neck. The jockey for the winning horse will then receive 60 red roses.

kentucky derby traditions
Photo credit: Dominic Sagar on Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-SA

Kentucky Derby Hats

Hats are something that are synonymous with racing around the globe. The Kentucky Derby is no different, with flamboyant hats being worn as far back as the very first iteration of the race in 1875. The idea initially was to get a favorable crowd attending the race meeting and to bring a bit of flair to proceedings. 

For the first running of the vent, the founder Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr told women from high society to spread the word among their friends about the upcoming event. He told them, to also bring a nice picnic for the day. This move proved to be a success, with a lot of people from the wealthy classes attending the first iteration of the event in their fanciest attire. The Kentucky Derby hats are usually the crown on top of the outfits, acting as a good luck charm. 

These days, both men and women wear Kentucky Derby hats to the race on Saturday. Some of the hats are more out there than others. Some have shrubbery, flowers and feathers, whereas some are a bit more muted. There is then a hat parade that takes place to showcase the various creations.

Kentucky Derby Drink

the mint julep is the kentucky derby drink
To make a Mint Julep, mix the following:
10 mint leaves
1,5 teaspoons of sugar
1,5 ounces of Bourbon Whiskey
Seltzer Water & Ice

The official cocktail drink of the Kentucky Derby is the mint julep. This has been the case since 1938. The Kentucky Derby mint julep recipe uses bourbon, sugar, water and mint. Traditionally, the cocktail will be served in a pewter or silver cup. It has always been a popular beverage, especially in Kentucky. Of all the bourbon in the world, 95% of it has been produced in the state of Kentucky. 

After the races conclude, the dozen winners get an invite to a private area at Churchill Downs. Here, they toast to their victories with the state governor, with a dozen sterling silver mint julep glasses being used to conduct the toast. 

At the event itself, the glasses used for mint juleps have the name of each Kentucky Derby winner on them, acting as a nice memento to bring home with you. 

Over the course of the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks days, there are over 120,000 mint juleps served at the track. This requires over 10,000 bottles of Old Forester Mint Julep Serving-Ready Cocktail, as well as 60,000 pounds of ice and 1,000 pounds of fresh mint.

Kentucky Derby Food

There is a lot of old school Kentucky Derby traditional food that is served at the racetrack such as the Kentucky Derby pie. One of the favorite dishes is called ‘burgoo’ and it is a thick stew with a lot of spices brought together with some crushed potatoes. While it might not sound too appalling on a hot summer’s day, it remains a fan favorite. 

The Kentucky Hot Brown is another favorite. This open sandwich is made up of bacon and sliced turkey on top of thick bread. It is then covered with cheesy sauce, broiled and then covered with brown sauce and bread crisps. 

Other notable foods you will find at the Kentucky Derby include beer cheese, benedictine spread, country ham biscuits, bourbon balls and the Kentucky Derby pie made with chocolate-bourbon nut. 

“My Old Kentucky Home”

While the date of origin for the “My Old Kentucky Home” song is a bit blurry, most believe that it was composed in 1852, with Stephen Foster being the song’s writer. This ballad details the natural beauty of Kentucky and the feelings it stirs in an enslaved servant. It first became part of Derby Day in 1921, becoming the official song for the state in 1928. 

The song begins when the Kentucky Derby horses are going from the paddock over to the starting gate for the race. The University of Louisville Marching Band plays the song, having done so most years since 1936. The crowd then joins in with the singing. With more than 160,000 people singing together, it is one of the most iconic sights and feelings in horse racing. It is a staple of the Kentucky Derby traditions.

The lyrics to the song are:

The sun shines bright in the old Kentucky home,

Tis summer, the people are gay;

The corn-top’s ripe and the meadow’s in the bloom

While the birds make music all the day.

The young folks roll on the little cabin floor

All merry, all happy and bright;

By’n by hard times comes a knocking at the door

Then my old Kentucky home, Good-night!

Weep no more my lady.

Oh! Weep no more today!We will sing one song for the old Kentucky home

For the old Kentucky home, far away.

Kentucky Derby Infield

The infield brings a modern-day party atmosphere to the entire event. It is like a massive frat party, with people wearing outrageous Kentucky Derby attire, people jump around in the mud and people generally let loose. It is a tough environment to step into if you are not prepared, particularly if you are wearing your nicest and fanciest Kentucky Derby outfits. You also will want to get your Kentucky Derby betting done in advance of entering the infield area.

There are no seats in the infield so people sit on the ground or stand. You will have to be very lucky to get much of a view of the races. However, it still attracts tens of thousands of people each and every year. There is no fear of tickets selling out, as there is no limit on tickets by Churchill Downs. 

The tickets go on sale normally in mid-November, getting more expensive as the race date approaches. Usually, tickets will be $40 until the end of December. They then tend to rise to $60 by race day. 

The majority of those attending the infield party are college students and some party animal locals. You will not really find families there as there are no infield activities that suit the “what to do at the Kentucky Derby” desires list for these folks.

Kentucky Oak Traditions

The Kentucky Oaks is the Grade 1 race which is only for thoroughbred fillies that are three years old. It takes place annually on the Friday of the meeting in advance of the main event. 

This race has been part of the meeting since the very first running of the Kentucky Derby in 1875. The founder of the race was Meriwether Lewis Clark, the grandson of the former Missouri Governor and famed explorer General William Clark. 

The Oaks is a massively attended race, being one of the most popular on the annual racing card. Traditionally, this is a celebration event for the ladies. There is a fashion contest that takes place. There is also a parade for the survivors of ovarian and breast cancer. 

One of the other traditions is for the fans at the event to raise a toast of a mint julep to the winner of the Oaks.