Horses, Hats and Roses: The Kentucky Derby is a Mix of Customs

04 May, 2018

The most famous horse races in America begin on May 5 with the running of the 144th Kentucky Derby. It is the first of a three part championship series. The other two races are the Preakness in Maryland and the Belmont Stakes in New York.

Win all three races and your horse is named a Triple Crown champion. It does not happen often. Only 12 horses have won the Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing. The first was Sir Barton in 1919. The most recent, almost 100 years later, was 2015 champion American Pharoah.

The Kentucky Derby, in the southern city of Louisville, is the youngest of the three races. It is arguably the most famous horse race in the world. It is often called the "most exciting two minutes in sports."

Millions of dollars are wagered on the Derby. And great wealth can be gained from breeding Derby winners.

FILE - Fans make wagers before the 140th running of the Kentucky Derby horse race at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, May 3, 2014.
FILE - Fans make wagers before the 140th running of the Kentucky Derby horse race at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, May 3, 2014.

A few facts and history

Kentucky Derby competitors are three years old. They run for two kilometers around the Churchill Downs racetrack in Louisville. Derby runners can be male or female horses. Only males have ever won, so far.

The famous Triple Crown winner Secretariat finished the Kentucky Derby faster than any horse, before or after him. His time in the 1973 race was 1 minute, 59.4 seconds. Only one other competitor has run the Derby in under two minutes. That horse, Monarchos, won the race in 2001. But, he did not break Secretariat's record.

Horse lovers, gamblers, the rich and the famous gather at Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby. It is as much a cultural celebration as it is a sporting event. And that celebration requires some preparation on the part of those attending.

Do not forget your hat

The Kentucky Derby is outside. The race can get very dirty, with the horses kicking up mud and dust as they speed around the track. But, observers are expected to look their best. Many men wear suits. Many women wear beautiful spring dresses.

However, the critical piece of clothing goes on top of your head.

Hats are almost a requirement at the Kentucky Derby. They come in all sizes, shapes and colors at the race. Women's hat styles vary greatly. They can include flowers, feathers, ribbons, jewels and more. You might even see a hat or two larger than the heads they top.

‘Run for the Roses'

The owners of the winning horse receive more than $1 million. More importantly, people will pay a lot of money to breed their horses with a Kentucky Derby winner.

And the horse? It gets flowers. As soon as the race is over, a spread of red roses is hung over the winning animal's neck. The tradition began in 1896. The red rose became the official Derby flower in 1904. And, about twenty years after that, the Kentucky Derby came to be known as the "Run for the Roses."

Mint julep time

Kentucky is famous for making the alcohol called bourbon. And Kentucky bourbon is the base of a famous Derby drink: the mint julep. It is served in a metal container to keep it very cold. It contains bourbon, sugar, mint leaves and ice.

The Kentucky Derby's official website says more than 120,000 mint juleps will be sold at Churchill Downs during the Derby weekend.

I'm Caty Weaver.

Caty Weaver wrote this story for VOA Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.


Words in This Story

wager v. to risk losing something (such as money) if your guess about what will happen is wrong

suit n. a set of clothes that usually consists of a jacket and a skirt or pair of pants that are made out of the same material

breeding v. to produce young animals, birds, etc.; to produce offspring by sexual reproduction

gambler n. someone who plays a game in which you can win or lose money or possessions

feather n. any one of the light growths that make up the outer covering of the body of a bird

ribbon n. a narrow piece of cloth (such as silk) that is used to tie things or for decoration