The Run for the Roses
By P.J. Thomas
It’s been called the most exciting two minutes in sports and ranks near the top of the “bucket list” for sports enthusiasts. The Kentucky Derby is the first leg in the Triple Crown of thoroughbred horse racing that includes the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes.
Though the Belmont Stakes is the oldest race, the Derby is arguably the most well known, just oozing with traditions starting when the races were first held at Churchill Downs Race Track in 1875.
It’s called, “The Run for the Roses” since the winning horse and jockey are draped in roses during the ceremony in the coveted winner’s circle.
The Kentucky Derby is the most important event in thoroughbred horse racing, and more than 150,000 people stream into Churchill Down during Derby weekend.
Two weeks of citywide events and festivities include an air show called “Thunder over Louisville”, and a race called, “Run for the Rosé” where waiters compete holding a glass of wine on a tray. There is a mini and full marathon and a fireworks display over the river that makes the Fourth of July pale in comparison.
And of course, there are the parties. Homes are decorated and no expense is spared to become one of the most coveted invitations in town. It’s unlikely you’ll find a bigger celebration outside of Bourbon Street in New Orleans. It’s like the Super Bowl, but prettier and more affordable.
The Derby is more than just a horse race, its pure Kentucky culture. Even the schools are closed on the Friday before Derby Day. Though, as one principal explained, “We don’t ‘close’ the schools for Derby. It’s really a teacher in-service training day.” (Wink wink.)
A greeter clad in a white suit welcomes the crowd approaching the track entrance. But first, everyone must go through a stringent security checkpoint before they are allowed to enter.
Welcome to the Churchill Downs
Perhaps the prettiest Derby tradition derived from England is the wearing of Derby hats. A sea of women dressed in the prettiest, most colorful, and silliest hats you’re likely to see outside of a church convention stream though the hallways. But, it’s not just women, men sport their finest brims as well.
The tradition of smoking cigars leaves the air pungent with the smell of tobacco. But the men, handsome in blue blazers and khaki slacks, or blue and white seersucker suits are almost forgiven when they blow a puff of smoke your way.
Instead of the cry of “cold beer, here” vendors yell, “Mint Julep!” It’s the official Derby drink, a concoction made of Bourbon, a little sugar, fresh mint, water and crushed ice. It’s an acquired taste.
Mint Julep is the official Derby Drink
Periodically heads rubberneck to catch a glimpse of celebrities such as Michael Jordan, movie stars and other rich and famous heading toward Millionaires Row where seats are priced as much as $2000.
It’s the “Call to the Post” and the crowd jumps up in excitement as the two-year-old thoroughbreds trot onto the track.
The jockeys, each barely five feet tall, wear a different multi-colored shirt called a set of silks. The jockeys show off their horses and well-clad groups of owners and their families and trainers, walk along side their respective horses.
Several spectators scurry back and forth to the betting windows where wagers are allowed right up until post time. The serious bettors often wait to get one last look at their favorite horse before placing their bets.
Finally, the horses are in the starting position. The gates fly open! The crowds careen for a better look at the magnificent 20-equestrian field approaching the first turn. Those savvy enough to have brought binoculars watch as the thundering herd rounds the second turn heading along the backfield.
As they horses turn onto the homestretch everyone is screaming the names of their number one pick. And just like that it’s over. It was a thrilling two minutes.
But no one is too sad. Not even the losers. Because here in Kentucky, there is still a full night of parties to attend.
The 2015 Kentucky Derby will be held on Saturday, May 7.
For tickets contact firstname.lastname@example.org or (215) 438-2140.