7 Things You Should Know About the Kentucky Derby

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Whether you're a fan of horse racing, garish hats, or mint in bourbon, the Kentucky Derby is certain to grab your attention the first Saturday in May. Here's everything you need to know before you watch American Pharaoh, Dortmund, and their 18 rivals run for the roses. 

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 William Clark of Lewis and Clark expedition fame, 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 American.)

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?"

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Because the winner gets a blanket of 554 red roses after the race. Whether a horse would rather receive a more practical gift, like some oats or a lump of delicious sugar, is up for debate, but the garland has become a beloved tradition. The practice springs from Derby parties Louisville's socialites threw in the early days of the race. Each lady would receive a red rose at the parties, and when Churchill Downs' president Colonel Lewis Clark saw their popularity, he made the rose the race's official flower.

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?

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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 has undergone a few makeovers since the Kentucky General Assembly adopted it as state song in 1928, including changing the offensive "darkies" to "people" in the first verse in 1986.

4. What the heck is a furlong?

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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?

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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?

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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."

The Derby's official julep is made with Old Forester, and it's incredibly popular. Each year over 120,000 juleps are served at the Derby, a job that requires 1,000 pounds of mint and 60,000 pounds of ice. (Here's the recipe.)

7. Do I want to ingest something called "burgoo"?

That depends on whether or not a thick stew of meats and vegetables sounds tasty to you. Burgoo is a classic Kentucky dish that could add a touch of authenticity to your Derby party. According to local tradition, it's best made in a gigantic pot and stirred with a clean 2x4. There's no standardized recipe for burgoo, but it's usually got pork, mutton, or another meat mixed with vegetables, potatoes, beans, and spices. It's a dish that varies quite a bit from cook to cook, but it's usually tasty and makes a great Derby-day snack. 

This post originally appeared in 2008.

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