How The Kentucky Derby Is Deep Rooted In Tradition

The greatest two minutes in sport to some is also a fashion police showdown to others.

The first Saturday in May: to some the greatest two minutes in sport, to others a fashion police showdown, but to most an event rooted in tradition. The Kentucky Derby.

SEE ALSO: 11 Incredible Facts You Never Knew About The Kentucky Derby!

The Kentucky Derby was first held in 1875 at Churchill Downs racetrack in Louisville, Kentucky and is the longest running sports event in the United States. This year it will be held on May 5th to crown a winner in a blanket of roses and determine who will be in contention for the triple crown.

To many the Derby is about much more than just these two minutes. These are the traditions that are unlike any other.

Mint Juleps 

For nearly a century, Mint Juleps have been the traditional beverage of the Kentucky Derby. While not always appealing to some, each year almost 120,000 Mint Juleps are served over the Kentucky Derby weekend at Churchill Downs. A taste for bourbon tends to be required for this easy to make drink which contains simple syrup, mint sprigs, crushed ice, topped off with a bourbon of choice.

Hats and Fashion

The real spectacle for many Derby participants is the hat parade. The Derby hat phenomenon began with Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr.’s vision for the Derby to be an event for the high-class. The goal was to have the feeling of European-style racing events which required full dress attire for men and women alike. This idea turned the Derby to be just as much about fashion as it was the race itself. Creating racing events into opportunities to show off the latest spring fashion statements in the forms of matching hats, dresses, bags, shoes, and sometimes even parasols.

As time went on, the fashion statements grew until in the 1960s extravagant Derby hats began to run wild. Hats became larger, brighter, louder, and more attention grabbing as years went on. Now Derby hats and outfits are chosen and planned months in advance. When prepping a Derby outfit choosing a hat that you feel comfortable in is the most important part. As the thing that makes you most attractive in your hat is your confidence. Once the hat is chosen, it’s best to shop in your closet to find an outfit that compliments rather than buying an outfit and then trying to find a hat to match.

The Roses

The Derby, now also known as the “Run for the Roses” holds a history almost as old as the race itself. Every year 400 red roses are sewn into a garland with green setting backing and the seal of the Commonwealth on each end. Along with it are: Twin Spires of Churchill Downs, and the race’s current renewal number.

“My Old Kentucky Home”

While most sports play the national anthem before a big game, the Kentucky Derby has a song all its own, “My Old Kentucky Home.” In the world of sports, there is not a more moving moment than when the horses step onto the track for the Kentucky Derby parade to the post and the song begins to play. When you look into the stands one can see 160,000 plus people all singing along. The song means much more to those of Kentucky. To them the Derby is a reunion, bringing families together from across the world, drawing eyes to the television for these nearly two moments of sport. To the trainers, jockeys, grooms, owners, everyone who has worked to get the horse to this moment. It is the realization that they have made it to the Kentucky Derby. And now all their hard work throughout the year comes down to this.

As the horses make their way down the track to the starting gate, the music flows, and tears water in the eyes of many in knowing that the time is now.

Whether you attend the Derby yourself this year, watch it on your television in your pajamas, or attend an extravagant Derby viewing party, enjoy. Whatever you cherish most about the Derby whether this be the fashion, the horses, the booze, the sport, just remember that the first Saturday in May only happens once a year. So indulge these quick two minutes while they last.

Photos: Sarah Hoskins

Emma Hoskins


Emma is a Chicago native currently studying environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon. You can typically find her going on spontaneous road trips, eating good food or hiking.

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