This is our first year living in Kentucky, which is our excuse for not fully grasping onto the fever. You see, to folks around here, for two weeks in late April to early May, everything revolves around the Kentucky Derby. In fact it is so entrenched into the culture and genetic code that all one has to say is “Derby” to instantly comprehend the entire meaning! I can thank two dear friends, Stephanie and Juliet, for educating me partially. I have vowed that by next year I will know exactly what to expect. I may even create a big hat!
The Kentucky Derby~
In 1872 Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr. – grandson of William Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition – traveled to England to attend the Derby Stakes, the most prestigious and richest race ran annually since 1780 at Epsom Downs in Surrey. Upon returning home to Kentucky, Clark organized the Louisville Jockey Club for the purpose of raising money to build quality racing facilities just outside of the city. The track was named Churchill Downs for John and Henry Churchill who provided the land for the racetrack. Since the first Kentucky Derby horserace held at Churchill Downs on May 17 in 1875, a race has run every year without fail.
In short time the Derby became the premiere thoroughbred horse race in the US. Thoroughbred owners began sending their successful Derby horses to compete a few weeks later in the Preakness Stakes at the Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, followed by the Belmont Stakes in Elmont, New York. These three races offered the largest purse. In 1919 Sir Barton became the first horse to win all three races. In 1930, when Gallant Fox became the second horse to win all three races, sportswriter Charles Hatton created the phrase “Triple Crown” which is now a part of American language. Two years later the desire to lay claim to the term “Triple Crown” was so great that the three races were set to occur on specific days in spring so as to never overlap. The Derby was set for the first Saturday in May, launching the three-race cycle.
The Kentucky Derby is a Grade I stakes race (pertains to the high level requirements and purse size) for three-year-old thoroughbred colts and geldings. Fillies can run in the race, but they have to work much harder to compete with the male horses (more on this is a bit). The winner receives a 14-carat gold trophy, a garland of 564 red roses sewn into a satin blanket, and an estimated $1.24 million payday. A total of $400,000 will be awarded to the runner-up, $200,000 to third, $100,000 to fourth and $60,000 to fifth.
The Derby is frequently referred to as “The Run for the Roses” because of that lush blanket of 564 red roses awarded to the winner. In 1883 New York socialite E. Berry Wall presented roses to ladies at a post-Derby party that was attended by Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark. This gesture gave Clark the idea of making the race’s official flower a rose. In 1896 was the first recorded account of roses being draped on the Derby winner. By tradition, the Governor of Kentucky awards the garland and the trophy.
The Derby race is 1 ¼ miles (2 km) long, and is known as the “most exciting two minutes in sports.” Only two horses in history – Secretariat in 1973 and Northern Dancer in 1964 – have come in under two minutes.
Churchill Downs was built in 1875. A few upgrades were added, most notably the twin spire grandstand in 1895, and refurbishing has been done, but for the most part the track and building are unchanged. In 1986 it was declared a National Historic Landmark. The seating capacity is 120,000, and on Derby day up to 150,000 people fill the stands to literally standing-room only!
In addition to the track, grandstand, and stables, the Kentucky Derby Museum is also housed on site. It contains two-stories of exhibits, traces every horse who has ever won the Derby, has a 360 degree theater, and is the burial site of six past Derby winners.
Throughout the year, in three separate “meets” there are many races run at Churchill Downs. Each year is kicked off with the spring meet beginning one week before Derby that lasts through July. A second meet is in the fall from October through the Thanksgiving weekend. In 2013 a third meet was added in the month of September.
The Kentucky Oaks~
The Kentucky Oaks is a Grade I stakes race for three-year-old Thoroughbred fillies, covers 1 1/8 miles (1,800 m), and is held on the Friday before the Kentucky Derby each year. Like the Derby, the Oaks first ran in 1875 and has done so each year since. The Oaks, while arguably not as famous as the Derby due to not being part of the Triple Crown, is the third highest ranked race in the US according to average attendance.
In honor of the Oaks official flower, the stargazer lily, southern belles and gentleman converge in a sea of pink attire to witness “The Race for the Lilies.” Why? Well, on top of the $1 million-guaranteed purse and silver trophy, the winner is draped with a huge garland of stargazer lilies.
Qualifications for running in either the Oaks or the Derby are strict. These are just the basics:
1. Equines must be proven to be a direct descendant of three stallions – Darley Arabian, Godolphin Arabian or Byerly Turk – from the General Stud Book of England, bred back in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.
2. All horses must be 3 year old thoroughbreds leveled at grade 1, at the top of their form with sufficient group 1 winnings in past performances to ensure they are fit for the race’s level.
3. Weight allocation: 126 lb (57.2 kg) for colts and geldings and 121 lb (54.9 kg) for fillies.
4. Fees to enter the Derby and Triple Crown include a $600-$6000 nomination fee (depending on the date of application), and another $50,000 total before race day.
I have barely skimmed the surface on the details and importance of the Derby and Oaks. If interested in more info, check the links provided below. Come back on Thursday for further Derby Season info, such as a recipe for Mint Julep!