Kentucky Derby Season & Traditions

Kentucky Derby Season & Traditions

On Tuesday I wrote a post about the Kentucky Derby, which is taking place this coming Saturday. For anyone in Kentucky, where I now reside some thirty miles south of Louisville and Churchill Downs, the Derby is THE hot event of the year. I am still learning about it, so thought a couple of posts would help me to understand the fever, and be of interest to some of you.

Today I’ll share a bit of the fun stuff and traditions that go along with Derby Season.


“My Old Kentucky Home” was written by Stephen Foster in 1852 while staying in Bardstown (where I live) and became the official state song in 1928. The first recorded playing of the ballad during the Kentucky Derby is in 1921, and every year since 1930 it has been played as the horses are lead from the paddock to the starting gate. The University of Louisville Marching Band has played the song since 1936, with very few exceptions.

My Old Kentucky Home
Words and Music by Stephen C. Foster

The sun shines bright in my old Kentucky home
‘Tis summer, the people are gay;
The corn top’s ripe and the meadow’s in the bloom,
While the birds make music all the day;
The young folks roll on the little cabin floor,
All merry, all happy, and bright,
By’n by hard times comes a-knocking at the door,
Then my old Kentucky home, good night!

Weep no more, my lady,
Oh weep no more today!
We will sing one song for my old Kentucky home,
For my old Kentucky home far away.


julepThe mint julep has been an alcoholic beverage since at least 1784, originating in the southern states of the US although little else is known for sure. Kentucky Senator Henry Clay introduced the drink to Washington, D.C., at the Round Robin Bar in the famous Willard Hotel. It is unclear whether bourbon was the original liquor base, and throughout history gin and brandy were used, but based on Kentucky as the creator of bourbon, it has long been the standard choice.

In 1938 the mint julep became the Kentucky Derby signature drink served in a silver cup, and it is estimated that in 2013 over 120,000 were ordered over the two-day event. Wow!


Official Derby Mint Julep Recipe

2 Cups sugar
2 Cups water
Sprigs of fresh mint
Crushed ice
Fine Kentucky Bourbon

Make a simple syrup by boiling sugar and water together for five minutes. Cool and place in a covered container with six or eight sprigs of fresh mint, then refrigerate overnight. Make one julep at a time by filling a julep cup with crushed ice, adding one tablespoon mint syrup and two ounces of Kentucky Bourbon. Stir rapidly with a spoon to frost the outside of the cup. Garnish with a sprig of fresh mint.

The BIG ornate hats worn by women to the race is a relic of the past, a popular fashion at the Derby’s start and now a custom. It goes back to England where the Kentucky Derby was patterned after the Epsom, but now has become a fashion event all of its own. On Google and Pinterest there are SO many awesome hats – and outrageously ridiculous Derby hats – that I went a bit crazy. Here is a slideshow of ones that struck me as particularly beautiful and unique. Enjoy!

Over time the fun and traditions grew too big and plentiful to be contained in a weekend. The present day two-week Derby Festival traces its origins to 1956 with four Louisville gentlemen deciding that the importance of the Derby to local citizens and visitors from all over the world was too great to not be enjoyed fully. Of particular concern to these men was that far too many people could not afford to attend the race itself. With a budget of $640 they engineered a literal pageant of the people. Dubbed the “Pegasus” Parade for the winged horse of Greek mythology, the first parade was to symbolize the magic, energy and excitement the infant Festival was hoped to generate.

pegasus parade

The Pegasus Parade continues to be held each year. Along with the parade, other events number over 70 for 2014. There is literally something for everyone. Sporting events, a marathon, children’s tea, galas, Beer Fest, a spelling bee, Texas Hold’em tournament, concerts, several food events, races, fashion show, and the two biggest and most famous events after Derby itself: Thunder Over Louisville and the Great Balloon Fest.

The first hot-air balloon race was held at Iroquois Park in Louisville in 1973, and featured only seven balloons. That single race is now a multiple-event festival within the Derby Festival that lasts for three days. This year over 63,000 people attended the opening night “balloon glow” and 31 balloons raced on Sunday. The winner of the race receives a purse prize of $7500!


balloon glow
2014 Louisville Balloon Glow
2014 Louisville Balloon Festival Race


Finally, but actually first in the Derby Festival period, is Thunder Over Louisville. The idea for a fireworks show addition to the Festival opening ceremony came up in 1988. A small amount of fireworks and cannon blasts were done at the then-daytime ceremony, and the response was highly favorable. Two years later, in 1990, the move was made to have the opening ceremony at night (a first) with a fireworks show as the centerpiece. It was held at the fairgrounds stadium and was so huge that the visual display and subsequent debris interfered with traffic on I-65!

In 1991 the show was officially named “Thunder Over Louisville” and was relocated to the Ohio River. Both Louisville and Cincinnati share the responsibilities and joys of presenting what is now the largest annual fireworks show in the United States, topping anything done on the 4th of July.




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I am such a huge fan of your books and am from Louisville myself. The Derby Festival is such an exciting time in the city. I hope you were able to enjoy the festivities that lead up to the first Saturday in May. Looking forward to reading more of your work and continuing to enjoy the Darcy’s story.

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