I was born and raised in Kentucky, a background that usually doesn't offer much in the way of conversation fodder. By the first Saturday in May each year, though, the Kentucky Derby has made the rest of the world curious about my home commonwealth, and I find myself fielding all sorts of Derby-related questions. Last year, I decided it would just be easier to write down my answers.
1. What are the origins of the Derby?
Kentucky has been a hotbed of the sport of kings since at least the 18th century, but the Derby didn't begin until 1875. Colonel M. Lewis Clark, a grandson of the Lewis-and-Clark-expedition William Clark, needed a slate of races for his newly formed Louisville Jockey Club, so he decided to run three stakes races at the track's first meet. The races—the Kentucky Derby, Kentucky Oaks, and Clark Handicap—were named after England's three marquee races, the Epsom Derby, the Epsom Oaks, and the St. Leger Stakes. The first Derby was held May 17, 1875; Aristides beat the field. (Interestingly, both Aristides' trainer and jockey were both African Americans.)
By 1883, the track would become known as Churchill Downs in recognition of John and Henry Churchill, Clark's uncles who secured the land for the course. The first runnings of the Derby were also 1.5 miles long; the standard distance of 1.25 miles wasn't adopted until 1896.
2. Why is the Derby called "The Run for the Roses"?
According to the Derby's organizers, 1896 Derby winner Ben Brush received the first garland of roses, and in 1925 journalist Bill Corum coined the term "Run for the Roses." The first blanket of roses like the one used today was awarded to the victorious Burgoo King in 1932. The modern garland is topped with a "crown," a single upturned rose that signifies the struggle a winner must endure. Since 1996, each winner's garland has been immediately freeze-dried for posterity.
3. What's that song they play to the horses?
The University of Louisville Marching Band's playing of "My Old Kentucky Home" as the horses trot onto the track for the post parade is another beloved Derby tradition. The tune, which was penned by Stephen Foster in 1853, is the official state song of Kentucky, and it's been played at every Derby since 1921. Well, almost. The song received a few changes when the Kentucky General Assembly adopted it as state song in 1928, they had to clean up the lyrics a bit, including changing the offensive "darkies" to "people" in the first verse.
4. What the heck is a furlong?
The Kentucky Derby runs for 1.25 miles, but you may hear some mention of furlongs, too. A furlong is a unit of distance equal to one eighth of a mile. Originally, a furlong referred to the length of the furrow running across an open ploughed field, but now it's mostly used to measure distances for horse racing.
5. What's a mint julep?
A mint julep is delicious, that's what it is. More specifically, it's the official cocktail of the Kentucky Derby. A julep consists of bourbon (another Kentucky specialty), mint, sugar, and crushed or shaved ice. The sweetness of the bourbon complements the bruised mint and sugar, and the ice makes it a frosty warm-weather drink. Since the ice is broken up, though, juleps should be thrown down the hatch quickly; otherwise the ice will melt and dilute the drink.
6. Why is the mint julep so popular?
Well, we already mentioned that it's delicious. It's also stood the test of time. John Milton mentioned a "cordial Julep" as far back as 1634, and the first known mention of the mint julep in print popped up in an 1803 travelogue. Red Bull and vodka hardly has that sort of historical backing.
Don't have bourbon? Then you can't really make a julep. Don't even try to make a julep with rye instead of bourbon; the spicy flavors of the rye just don't measure up. As the humorist Irvin S. Cobb once teased his friend H.L. Mencken's mixing abilities with the quip, "Any guy who'd put rye in a mint julep and crush the leaves would put scorpions in a baby's bed."
Ironically, though, the Kentucky Derby is one place that you won't get a "real" julep. The official julep of the Derby is made with Early Times, which is a Kentucky whiskey, but not a bourbon. This quibble doesn't make the drink any less popular, though. Each year over 120,000 juleps are served at the Derby. (Here's the recipe.)